I haven’t won anything since the fourth grade talent show…

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That’s when I sang “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things” as a part of a trio. My hair was in braids and I was sandwiched in between two cute boys in leiderhozen.

But that’s all over now. I just found out that Tribal Church won a Merit Award from the Religion Communicators Council. Nice.

the photo’s by s3a

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Risky business

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I used to be a business manager, which comes in handy as a pastor. I’ve heard the mantra a thousand times over the years, usually from well-meaning parishioners: “We oughta run this church like a business.”

I agree, on a lot of things. I’m all for good business practices. I often watch the Head of Staff at Western use his MBA as a tremendous tool that sharpens his 25 years in the ministry.

And, all too often, I cringe as I watch congregations and denominational bodies make bad investments. They say that they’re “stepping out in faith” or they coat it in some other religious lingo, but I suspect that sometimes the real reason is that they haven’t seriously weighed the implications.

There are some basic business (common sense?) principles that I like to keep. For example, as a pastor, I don’t like when the church spends more money than we have (i.e, relying on the principal and a hefty investment return to make a decision, when the return has not yet been realized).

Of course, businesses are typically in it for the bottom line, and we’re simply not in it to make money. Imagine the church mission statement: “To reach out to the world, working for justice and peace. To spread the good news of Jesus Christ. To strengthen and nourish people on their spiritual journeys. And to make as much money as we possible can.” That might work for stockholders, but not for members of a caring congregation.

Of course, we often hear about running the church like a business, as if that’s some monolithic concept. But businesses run in different directions. And sometimes “run the church like a business” is code for “never spend money.” It’s rarely used when we’re talking about good employment practices.

Yet, in the church, as well as in business, it’s sometimes wise to make an investment in human resources. If there’s access to money and there’s a really good pastor available, usually the best investment that a church can make is to spend their money on a person. I’m not talking about hiring an additional person, but I am talking about putting some more money into the pastor who’s there, or supplementing an existing position.

In other words, if a church decides to starve out their pastor, because they don’t want to touch that big, fat, bank account that’s making four percent in some money market, they may want to rethink their investment strategies. Keeping a pastor long-term will almost always be a better investment (in ministry, vitality, and the general budget’s income) than watching that pot of money grow bigger in the bank.

It’s also difficult when people talk about running the church like a business, but they change their tune when it comes down to paying pastors fairly or maintaining equitable employment practices. When it comes down to pay, often for the most business-minded parishioners, all of a sudden, it’s not about money, it’s about love, it’s about ministry.

And, unfortunately, as women, we often don’t use good business sense. We stay in entry-level positions, at entry-level pay, for our entire careers. The typical trend is that men move up in terms of position and pay after ten years, and women don’t. They stay on the bottom rung. They spend thirty years watching people come out of seminary, making more than they do.

In most businesses in our country, if a person’s paid the entry-level after ten years, and the trend is that many more women than men are not being compensated for their experience, then there’s rarely a question. There’s an injustice. But, in the church, some of our best business practices don’t apply.

The economy of the family

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Before my husband and I began pastoring churches, we had a simple formula for when and how we would get jobs. We would take turns. One of us would receive a call first, the other would receive the next one. Back-and-forth, we would go.

That neat, orderly plan was screwed up from the start. Brian had a lovely, big church in Florida waiting for his graduation from seminary. There was one problem, though. When he said, “My wife’s in seminary too. Do you know if there’s any job possibilities in this area for her?”

The response was, “Well… there’s a Wal-Mart about a mile away.”

Which was not the answer we were hoping for. He began to bring up the question more, not because they were responsible for getting me a job, but because he got a strange vibe from them whenever he mentioned that his wife was going to be a pastor. As he explored it more with them, they kept giving him the wrong answers, until he was pretty sure, they wanted a pastor’s wife. Like… one that might have a part-time retail job, but on Sunday, she teaches Sunday school, sits in the second pew, with her perfect children, looking up at her perfect husband.

In short, they didn’t want me.

Lewie Donelson, our good seminary professor has recently explained to us what we negotiated–it was the economy of the family. In the end, we decided to take two churches in South Louisiana. It wasn’t monetarily better for us, but we both got ordained.

From the beginning, as a clergy couple, we have negotiated the economy of the family in the call process. And when we haven’t, we’ve regretted it. In other words, we might negotiate salaries with our churches, but we also had to think about the entire family, and we quickly discovered that many things trump money. Here are some of the factors that come up when we’re looking for churches, as a family.

Opportunity–This seems to be the most important and the most difficult to figure out. We need to be in a place where there is the possibility for both of us to be employed. Neither one of us would make a good long-term house-spouse, especially now that our child has entered elementary school.

Education–We’re not the sort of parents who are worried about how to get our kid into Harvard now that’s she’s seven. But we’ve served in urban and rural areas where the school systems are some of the worst in the nation, and in those contexts, education becomes important.

Support systems–This has meant different things at different phases in our lives. At times, we needed to be near family. Other times, we needed to be closer to friends. For us, being a part of a vibrant and diverse arts community is extremely important. We’ve just learned that there are things that feed our souls. Things that can’t be found in every place.

Environment–We had to leave Louisiana because the environmental degradation was hurting our infant’s health (they still burn the sugar cane fields, so there are months when smoke and ash fill the air). And there have been other environment factors: I feel more at home closer to water, and my husband used to miss the seasons. Since I practice walking meditation, I need to live near a place where I can walk in nature. Again, our needs shift and change, but I’ve learned to listen to those urges for certain earth.

What about you? What would you add? What things are important to you and your family?

photo’s by Paint Monkey

Our ordination debacle

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Sorry about the Presbyterian shoptalk, but it’s got to be said….

I failed my Polity Exam in seminary. Many times. I failed it the first time, and then I failed it the second time. I may have I failed it a third time, but the jury’s still out.

I asked our polity professor to tutor me, one-on-one. And she did. She spent hours with me, examining me. I wrote papers, I answered questions, I took practice tests, I practically memorized the Book of Order. All of which I got gold stars for. But, no matter what sort of preparation I endured, when the test was sent off to another state, I kept failing.

It was odd, because I did well in seminary. I was a teaching assistant for Greek, Hebrew, Theology, and Church History. I was the research assistant for a professor and the president of the seminary. I had been through the psych evaluations and my IQ was in the 99th percentile of the nation (which… feels as embarrassing to admit as the failure). I had a good GPA.

But I kept failing the Polity exam.

The Presbytery committee, who was in charge of my care, was perplexed. They had seen my grades, my psych evaluations, and they couldn’t figure out what was happening.

I took my last failed exam to the polity professor to find out what I had done wrong. She looked it over and said that I had done nothing wrong. So, I took it to my committee to find out why I failed. They couldn’t figure it out either. They sent the exam back to appeal the decision.

I don’t think the appeal process is working, because it’s been ten years and I still haven’t heard if they granted the appeal.

By this time, I had a church who was also waiting on the decision, but we weren’t hearing anything. Finally, the Synod and Presbytery set up a six-hour written and oral examination, in front of a dozen committee members, a synod staff member, and the executive presbyter. I passed with ease.

When the committee told me I passed, one of the clergywomen said emphatically, “You’ve passed. Now, NEVER TELL ANYONE THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED.”

And I didn’t. I’m pretty sure she wanted to protect me. I was, of course, incredibly embarrassed, so it wasn’t too hard to not talk about it.

But now, ten years into the ministry, as I watch other bright, interesting students struggle through examinations, I’m not sure that it was a failure on my part. I’m not sure these years of silence protected me or protected a defective system.

When I look back on who passed and who failed, it was completely random. Usually, people who grew up in the Presbyterian Church passed. I know an incredibly intelligent and talented pastor who couldn’t pass because she had a learning disability. I know a pastor who failed an exam because he misspelled some words, and made a grammatical error. And, I have spoken to ordination exam graders who proudly bragged that they failed 8 out of 10 of the examinations that they were scoring.

It’s broken, my friends. The ord exam process is not working. I don’t know how long it’s been in disrepair, but I know that it is. And it probably stays busted because of embarrassed people like me who never tell anyone what happened.

It seems obvious what’s wrong. We have open-ended essay questions, which aren’t graded by professors, they’re graded by elders and pastors who have answer sheets. So, we have open-ended questions, but a close-ended number of possibilities for answers. We have graders who may not be able to discern if an alternative or a creative (gasp!) answer might still be correct. Students are failing, not because they give wrong answers, but because they present different answers.

The testing process makes no sense. And, from my experience, there really is no way to appeal. When I was in seminary, nationally, there was a 25 percent failure rate for each essay exam. We had to pass all four exams. Which means… each student had a 100% chance of failing.

How is that fair?

photo’s by truds09

Web site design

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We’re working on our web design. Actually, we’ve been working on it for a while now… but it’s aaaallllmmmooosssst complete.

Here’s what we’ve got that’s interesting:

A podcast link on the first page, so people can download sermon podcasts.
A blog feature for the written sermons, so people can talk back.
A lengthy “What to expect” page that goes over every part of the service (you know, so it’s not so scary if you’ve never been to church).

Hhmmm…. I think everything else is standard.

So, if you had all the expertise in the world, what would you add to your church website? And here’s something we’re always struggling with in our church… what do you think about paypal on church sites?

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of technology, there’s always the ominous underside…. here are three disturbing pieces on facebook.

photo’s by kmevans

The Myth of the Money-grubbing Minister

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There’s something that concerns me when I listen to new ministers and seminarians. We have an awkward relationship with money.

As church leaders, we are consciously opting out of a high salary. Pastors comfortably fit into the top 25% of intelligence levels in our country. So, we’re smart enough to be doing just about anything, but we are counter-cultural and have a calling to something else.

A friend of mine went to Princeton University, and when she announced to her family that she wanted to become a pastor, her mom moaned, “Well, that degree was a waste!” I am sure that you, no doubt, have heard the same sort of plain: “But you’re so talented. You could make money. Why would you want to do that?”

I have heard that doctors, lawyers, and pastors used to make the same salary. Now we don’t. Things have changed. We know that the very top guy in our field (as much as we might think he’s overpaid) is usually not making a fraction of what he would make in a comparable position in another occupation.

So, we’ve obviously made some monetary sacrifices. That’s clear. But here’s where things get weird….

I saw Rob Bell in his “The Gods Aren’t Angry” Tour a few months ago. It was very good. He presented a clear, entertaining, applicable view of the atonement. It was an evangelical, penal substitutionary atonement view. But he shifted the need for the penalty from God to humans. God isn’t angry, God doesn’t need our sacrifices to atone. There is something deep within us that needs to present those gifts. He took this delicate, yet very important step, with his audience, by setting a historical context.

There was a line, however, within the presentation that stuck with me. Bell was explaining the Levitical codes, and he pointed out something like… priests used to be very wealthy. They made a lot from people’s guilt and their need to atone. He said something sly and sarcastic, about how we couldn’t imagine religious leaders making a lot of money off of people now. I looked around the packed auditorium. Hundreds of people (each paying a ticket price to get in) nodded and chuckled. It clearly resonated with the crowd.

The theater that he was performing at is on the GW campus, just a couple of blocks from my church. I walked through the hordes of people buying his books and DVDs. I’m glad he’s making money. He’s smart and talented. But, as I walked back to the church building, I was disheartened. He just validated that notion that religious leaders are making truckloads of money. He will drive away in his big bus, and I will need to continue to work on that campus, now having to overcome yet another stigma that I’m a greedy religious leader.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll just hope that he’s talking about his colleagues–evangelical pastors who have congregations of thousands, like his. That he wasn’t talking about the associate pastor of a congregation of 250 members. But I’m not sure my neighbors make that distinction.

I hate the perpetuation of this idea. It permeates our society, our churches, and our very own leadership. This notion that somehow we ought not to be making money. That if we do, we’re greedy capitalists. That if we have a particular calling to a large congregation, then we must have it for nefarious reasons. When in reality, most of us are in debt from going to seminary and we can’t pay our mortgages. We could be doing a whole lot of other things if we were in it for the money.

So, is there any way to put an end to this, once and for all? Could we please stop the myth of the greedy pastor?

photo’s by Dmitry Kolchev

Because I could not stop for Death

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Amendment: Check out the comments. They’re really good. Much more helpful than the post!

Brian made it through the day. Thanks for the prayers.

If you ever find yourself in that sort of situation (God forbid), here’s what they did. They hired a children’s grief counselor for a workshop for the parents. I understand that Hospice often has this service as well. I wasn’t there (we pastor separate churches), but Brian reported that she didn’t say anything magical–nothing that we wouldn’t have thought of. But he was really, really glad she was there.

From what I could glean, this is what she told the parents:

Be concrete. Children in preschool generally don’t think in abstracts. I’m thinking about how we talk about death, and it’s often in the abstract, isn’t it? The “d” word is too hard, to harsh to bear. We speak of people who “pass away,” “go the way of the flesh,” “enter into eternal rest,” or “pass on.” Even in our cultural abstracts, Children need concrete.

Be honest. I have a friend whose child in preschool, and the school says it’s very important for children in the first few years of life to grow up knowing that the world is good. I agree, in theory. We should surround our children with love, care and a safe environment.

The difficulty is when we’re not honest with our kids because we’re trying to hide bad things. We don’t want to do backbends to keep our children from ever seeing the bad, because then they may grow up, not thinking, the world is good, but, my parent’s aren’t honest. It would be tempting for the parents to avoid telling the children about this, but the child will hear about it in school. And it’s better that a child hears about it from a parent than another four year old or a teacher.

It’s okay to say that the child is with Jesus. I usually explain death to children a little differently. I usually tell them what comforts me: “God is love. Pure, beautiful love. God made us in love, and we die in love. When that little boy died, God came and enfolded him in God’s big, loving arms.” Which might be too abstract (going against the first point) but it’s what I honestly believe (going with the second point).

There was other good guidance, like telling the children how rare this is, so that the child doesn’t expect to die as well. And the response of the child may be strange. The child may cry. Many of them laugh. Sometimes they don’t respond at all.

There are so many things that strike me in all of this. The main one is how well acquainted our family is with death. Not in a morbid way, but in a sweet and beautiful, part-of-life sort of way.

And that’s a gift the church has given to us. We’ve always been in these caring communities with old people. Current research has shown that the elderly believe more in life-after-death than the young do. My daughter has spent many Sundays constructing cards and valentines for people who are dying. We’ve been having these discussions for a long time. I love being in an intergenerational community, where our family can get an appreciation of every stage in life.

But…of course, the sweetness melts away in this situation. The death of a ninety year old is completely different from the death of a four year old. Who can explain the death of such a small child?

A college friend lost a child. She was two. He went to wake her up one morning, and she didn’t stir. A year after she died, he sent us a letter that still makes me cry when I think of it. He wrote, “I always knew that her life would be a novel. I just didn’t know it would be so short.”

photo’s by tartx