A day in the life

I was planning to write a post about the nature of atonement. But I have much more frivolous things to talk about. I just want you all to know that I made it to Orlando, and I’m not even sure how I did it.

For those of you who know me, you are well aware that I’m… well… some say spacey, others say disorganized, others say air-headed… I don’t know if any of those descriptions work for me exactly. I just know that I forget stuff, like my keys or my cell phone. And then I neglect looking in the mirror for days. Especially when I’m thinking about things. And I’ve had my head in this book that I’m working on….

So, this morning, I had my husband drop me off at the wrong airport. Thank God, I figured it out before I hauled my stuff out of the car. I finally got to the right airport, kissed the family goodbye, and had this strange, disconcerting feeling that people were staring at…um…me. I took a beeline to the restroom, looked in the mirror, and saw that I had this big tooth paste stain down the from of my shirt. Nice. I put a sweater on, and buttoned it up to cover the stain.

Since I didn’t have my daughter with me, I found out that there’s an underground short-cut security checkpoint at Dulles. For “experienced” adult travelers. They invited me in the line, and I just thought, they don’t know me well. Without realizing it, I dropped my boarding pass while going through security. Which… should I even mention that’s the second time that’s happened THIS WEEK? Some guy turned it in for me.

I finally made it to my gate. Then, I handed my plane ticket to the steward. Walked past him, and he yelled, “Ma’am!” (I’m beginning to hate that word) “This plane is going to Jacksonville. You’re going to Orlando.”

Wrong gate.

When I finally made it to Orlando, I was checking out the room, and inadvertently looked into the mirror. And I found my sweater had a hole. When I moved my arm a bit, I saw it had at least ten holes. Like a swarm of moths broke into my bedroom last night and made a Thanksgiving feast out of my favorite sweater. How did I miss that?

How do I even make it from point A to point B?

But, I did make it. And I’m going to be talking to the good people of the United Methodist Church’s School of Congregational Development on Saturday. And I’m going to do it without any toothpaste down my shirt.

the photo’s by slowburn


Wondering about weddings…

I presided over two weddings in the last couple of weeks, and both of them were beautiful.

The first one struck me, because the couple didn’t pay for anything other than the church. No flowers except for a few houseplants. The bride held a fan. No musicians other than family members and friends. The dresses were all black, but I think the attendants were just instructed to wear their favorite black dress. After the service, everyone went to get some pizza.

There was no stress. You know, it had none of the vibe that we so often get at weddings, the “this has got to be the perfect day because I just spent six months’ salary” anxiety that overtakes the event. The unease that overcomes us like a five-year-old who anticipates her birthday so much that she ends up in fit of tears for no reason.

The bride wanted to be married at Western, even though they now live in Baltimore, because it was the church that she would visit when she was a student. She wanted to be in that space because it meant so much to her.

And so their family and friends gathered, and we celebrated. And we did not, for one minute, miss the flowers, or the matching dresses, or the boutonnieres. The bride was still stunning. The groom was still in love. And everyone was happy.

I wonder if there is any way that we can begin to stop the wedding industry. I mean, I love flowers and beautiful music. And I think that art is worth paying for. It’s just that girls are conditioned, from the time that they get to know the Disney princesses, that they can be a princess for one day. The day of their wedding.

But we know these events can become blown out of proportion, and they can cause a financial strain on some couples that can stay with them for years to come. Like so many things in our society, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that bigger is better, and the more we spend, the more happiness it will bring us. The more meaningful the event will be.

And yet that wedding gave me a bit of hope… could simplicity be restored on the wedding front? Is there any way to fight back the industry? Because, I’m telling you…we didn’t miss a thing.

The photo’s by Diego Sierralta

A random and scattered assortment of thoughts as I rush out

I just got back from doing a conference in Los Angeles, and now I need to go to North Carolina for a wedding. The cutest couple in the world is getting married tomorrow. And then, somehow, I’ll need to get back for Sunday morning.

Sunday afternoon is Karen’s funeral. The pastor-types are getting pedicures—with gold nail polish—in her honor. Which, if you knew Karen, is a perfect tribute. It’s got a back-story which won’t make much sense. But… I’ll tell you this much… it’s a warrior’s pedicure.

I’ve never had a pedicure in my life. Perhaps it’s time for me to start. But I won’t be able to get one before Sunday. Unfortunately.

Here are some very strange realities about pastoring:

If you over-schedule your week, then you’re bound to have a few extra emergencies on top of it.

Sometimes you preach a sermon on Sunday that you need to hear the rest of the week. I never expect the Holy Spirit to work that way, but it’s often true.

As a pastor, you walk through the greatest joys of life and the deepest sorrows, all in a few days.

After a few years, wedding and funerals become easier to do. But on an emotional level, funerals are still difficult. Which is good. It’s important to keep feeling things. Some pastors will tell you that the sorrow’s not as deep as the years go on. That you’ll become comfortably numb. But that never works for me.

Alright. I’m out. More later.


I ran into this thoughtful review of Tribal Church by Clare Barry, an Anglican Priest in New Zealand. Basically, she liked the book, agreed with what I said, but she found herself scribbling “YBH” in the margins: “Yes, but how?” She wasn’t interested in a broad array of case studies, she was more interested in how we did it at Western—how we went from a tiny, dying church that was seventy percent over the age of seventy, to a vital intergenerational congregation. She wanted a more in-depth insight into the steps that we took in particular.

I appreciate that. Of course, what worked in D.C. may not work everywhere, context is a key factor. And, most of what happened at Western happened before I got there. I use “we” because I’m a part of the history now, but this is all information that I have gleaned from the community, particularly my colleague, John Wimberly.

I’m writing this in a hotel lobby in Los Angeles, so I can’t fact-check here. But, John, if you’re reading, please feel free to correct me on any details.

Since it’s always fun to hear what other churches have done and are doing, I’ll try to answer YBH. It will probably take a couple of posts, but here goes….

In the book, I talk about connection to the world. In the churchy-talk of the moment, I’m referring to being missional. In the parlance of D.C., it’s social justice. All in all, it’s encouraging your church to get out of itself, and connect with the problems of the world around them.

All of our congregations have energy and a whole lot of it goes back into the church itself. But, if we can stop putting a bunch of passion into fighting over whether the communion bread should be cut into squares or circles, and try to think about the people who are starving outside of our doors, then we’ve gone a long way to become the hands and feet of Jesus.

Now, YBH?

At Western, we began a homeless ministry. It was just a short time into John Wimberly’s pastorate when someone came to him with a bit of money and said he wanted to start a feeding program in our neighborhood. There was no way that he thought that the church would do it. They were older, conservative, and very fastidious about keeping the property in pristine condition.

John began to preach every week about how the Bible says that we should feed the hungry, and take care of those in need. And even though the congregation knew that the building could not handle the ministry, when it came down to a congregational vote, they accepted the ministry, because the Bible said that they should do it.

He gathered some other leaders in the neighborhood, like the GW’s ecumenical campus ministry, the Jewish students at Hillel, and United Church (a UMC/UCC church down the street) and started Miriam’s Kitchen. They began by feeding people in the mornings, so that they could make it back to work in time.

The outreach grew over the years, from a totally volunteer-run organization to hiring a director (we hired a homeless guy… and I think I recall that he slept in the church and ended up dying on the stage in the fellowship hall…).

Now, it’s a wonderful organization, with a staff of social workers, an amazing chef, and an executive director who is nothing short of well… unbelievable. These are my colleagues who work down the hall from me. They are all quiet, unassuming. The oldest one is forty. They are self-motivated and they work very, very hard. The burn-out rate is low. And they’re always looking for ways to expand their services.

They offer the clients a place to relieve themselves in the morning, a place to wash up and shave, a chance to get out of the cold, one of the best breakfasts in town (seriously, it’s been written up in the Post food section), Yoga classes, poetry writing classes, art classes. They have transitional housing. And they want to expand their housing and begin a dinner program.

There are so many resurrection stories here. We often say at Western that “we worked to save the homeless, and the homeless saved us.” And it’s true. The ministry gave the church a sense of purpose, a chance to get outside of themselves, an opportunity to follow the words of Jesus in a concrete way. It always attracts people to our congregation.

And what happened to the building, the one that could not possibly handle the wear and tear of feeding 250 homeless people? Well… that’s a resurrection story as well. I won’t go into the details… but I will say we have a new building. With the plumbing, kitchen facilities, and everything that we need for our ministry.

You know… it’s true what they say. You can’t out-give God.

Finishing the race

So, as much as I’m excited about this presidential election, there have been some very low moments. Of course, one of the lowest came with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, on the set of FOX news, with a mic on him, saying that he wants to cut the (ahem) balls off of Barack Obama. He thought he was making a personal comment… but… he had his mic on. He was on the set of FOX news.

It’s a low because I really, really respect Rev. Jackson. He’s another minister in town. But, unfortunately, he’s gone the way of other great leaders I respected, like Geraldine Ferraro. Like so many older feminists who disdained younger ones who didn’t support their candidate. People who sparked so many amazing, groundbreaking revolutions, but can’t seem to bear to watch a new generation of leaders step into leadership.

It happens in the church as well. I won’t name names, because that would just be distasteful. But often groups who are looking to expand the representation or rights of certain groups can easily get caught in a trap of only have one age group representing them. You can look at their Boards. They are dominated by gray hair, and then they spend their time wondering, “How can we get the young people involved?”

They forgot that you have to actually hand the baton to the next runner. You can’t hold on to the baton, and then wonder why the race never gets completed.

(Okay, so, I will point out one case… I’m going to be on a conference call with Presbyterian Women this morning. They want to know where the young women are. I’m debating how honest I should be….)

I guess we don’t realize what’s happening because we had a lot of strong healthy churches in the 50s. Then we had a healthy baby boom that kept our pulpits populated since the 70s. But now…our time is running out.

I read some stats about the Presbyterian Church, but I’m sure that they are similar in other denominations. They should wake us up a bit:

There are currently about 700 new retirees each year and about 700 retirees die each year. With 64% of our active members [members of the Board of Pensions] having been born between 1946 and 1964, the number of new retirees each year will double between now and 2011-12.

So… to keep up with the demand… we ought to be producing twice the number of candidates and seminary graduates. How in the world are we going to fill the vacuum that’s coming? Is anyone trying to keep our unemployed seminary graduates engaged? Because we’re really, really going to need them soon.

I guess it would help if we were more intentional about developing our young leadership. They’re not lasting long. They’re burning out at incredibly high rates. They need two incomes to make it, but they are not able to find jobs in the same places as their spouses. They are moving into a housing market in which our older pastors may have lived comfortably, but we’re having a hard time affording a mortgage.

We have a crisis in racial ethnic leadership. We have a crisis in LGBT leadership. We have a crisis in women’s leadership. All of those things are clear. And soon…we’re going to be having a crisis in young leadership. Not because of their inabilities, but because of our inability to give them a voice. To keep them engaged. To recognize their gifts. To hand over some power.

It’s time to pass on the baton.

Book marketing

So I was in the midst of book marketing, when another author came to visit.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to sell my book.”

“But that’s the publisher’s job.”

Well, yes. But not really. If you’re a big name, and you have a big publisher, they might pull out a spread in the Christian Century or something. But, I was a very tiny name. I knew that the good folks at Alban would do all they could, but the bulk of it would be up to me. And, lucky for me, my husband got into the act, and did a great job of it.

If you know me personally, then you’re probably laughing right now. Because the fact is, I kind of suck at marketing my own book. Half of my own congregation probably doesn’t know that I wrote a book. Ask me what my book is about and I’ll mumble something incoherent to you. My friend Tara Spuhler McCabe reminds me of how bad I am about every time I see her….

Let me assure you that I’m not a natural sales person. And promoting my own work feels about as comfortable as pulling my own molars out. But… I did something right. The book sold more than expected. I’m on my publisher’s bestseller list, right under some very established authors. So, in case there are some budding authors out there, I thought I’d let you know what I did.

But, I may have to begin with an explanation, because people look at book prices and assume that the author’s taking home a pile of change. When, actually, authors often make about 8-12 percent of the cover. And most books sell about a thousand copies. So, you can do the math. If an author makes 10 percent on a book that costs $15, and she sells 1,000 copies, then she will make $1,500.

Most people think that marketing a book is about making lots of money, but there are only a handful of people who are making an actual living on books alone. A friend of mine was at the Cathedral a couple of weeks ago with Barbara Brown Taylor, Nora Gallager, and Lauren Winner. Three huge names in our little publishing corner–and they all have day jobs.

Book marketing is less about making money, and more about the small hope that someone just might actually read what you’ve written. And…okay…it’s a little bit about making money…because after spending a good year neglecting your family, it is kind of nice to take your husband out to eat with the royalty check.

I’ll start with what didn’t work. But let me do it with the caveat that you have to try anything and everything.

I had a book table at my Presbytery, and I might have sold two books. It was kind of embarrassing.

Then, we made postcards and mailed them out, but it was very expensive. To get a couple hundred one-sided, color postcards, it costs a couple hundred dollars. And, remember, we’re talking about $1,500. So in the end, I figured that spending $400 on junk mail wasn’t the best way to go about it.

The main thing that I did was try to get it out on the web as much as possible. And the two things that worked were this blog and sending out personal emails. Since you’re here, I assume you know about the blog. Other bloggers were really the key. I got wonderful reviews from them. (Thank you sooo much! And please, let me know what I can do to return the favor.)

I put together an email, with an electronic version of the postcard, and went about the pain-staking business of sending them out to everyone I could think of. First it was family. Then it was friends. Then it was leaders in progressive mainline organizations. Brian compiled the lists, and I wrote personal messages in each one, and sent them out individually, hoping that they wouldn’t be deleted as spam. I did this for the first six months, every time my Amazon ranking got lower than 100,000.

I didn’t get a response from most of the people. But, it was amazing how many wonderful replies I did get. I even formed some good relationships through it.

It is strange who will buy the book and who will promote it. Many of my family members didn’t buy it. Only a couple members of my congregation have read it. The editor whom I knew personally didn’t include a review in his publication. And then others, people I never met, jumped on reviews. Some people who knew me well (like the good people at my seminary), bent over backwards to promote it, others paid no attention to it.

All of this was interesting. I mean, when a friend of mine writes a book, I’m on the publisher’s waiting list. I can’t wait to read it and spread the news. Hhmmm…. is all this saying something about how unimpressive I am personally? Maybe.

Or maybe it’s just how it is. It’s a strange mix between “it’s who you know” and “a prophet is without honor in her hometown.” (Not saying that I’m a prophet…just saying those words of Jesus were quite comforting at times.)

The traveling is really fun, and I started out going anywhere, at any time, at any price. But then my calendar filled up, and I realized how hard it can be on the family. Plus, I still have a full-time pastorate, and my job description has only gotten bigger. So, where I’ve been willing to travel at cost, I’m at the place now where I need to start asking for an honorarium. You know. There are only 24 hours in a day. It’s the time factor. I guess I shouldn’t feel so bad, though. I know people in this business who charge for phone calls!

The emergent church guys are doing something interesting. You see, I go to conferences, get paid for travel and an honorarium. Then, I hope that I can sell a few books in the process. But it seems that they are eschewing that model and inventing a new one. They’re renting their own spaces, or finding churches that will host them. They put together their own conferences and book promo shows. Then they sell tickets, and sell books on top of that. With the small amount that authors make, I wonder if this is the model we’ll all be going to soon.

So, questions for y’all. I’ve had a couple authors whom I don’t know friend me on facebook. And now their status updates only include information on book tours. On one hand, I shrug and think, Whatever it takes. When my book came out, I posted it on the wall of groups that I was a part of… but… on the other hand, it does seem like there’s a line somewhere between good marketing and bad taste. Where’s the line? When did you think it was crossed? When is it good use of social networking, and when is it using your friends to sell books? What annoys you about book marketing? What works?