Walking wounded

Overheard in coffee hour:

“It was kind of hard for me to join this church because I’ve had a lot of bad experiences,” he said.

“Join the club,” she said with some eye-rolling.

I laughed. Kind of a quick, laughing-to-keep-from-crying sort of moan.

It’s true. We’re the walking wounded here at Western. The pastoral staff, the leadership–many of us have a story. I’m not sure how to write about it. I’ve attempted in the past, because I know that it’s not just here. It’s everywhere. Sometimes it just seems like people are roaming around, black and blue from some sort of church experience.

It comes up in different ways.

Often it is a person who felt like they were scared or manipulated into asking Jesus Christ into their hearts as a child. There was something about being told, at a vulnerable age, that they had to make a decision or go to hell that wounds. They have memories of the constricting fear from worrying about losing their salvation or being left behind during the rapture.

Since belief and doubt were presented in such black and white terms, people often worried about asking questions, or analyzing their faith in any meaningful way. Many people can’t seem to imagine that God would allow any questions. And most decide that it’s less painful to walk away.

Or there are the people who lived through the frustration of sexism in the church. Being told that women should keep silent, that they should not teach, that they should always submit. Questioning any role that women might play outside of the home.

There is the pain of sexual abuse and scandals that have infected our church in the past decades. I always wonder, “Has this always been going on? Do we just talk about it now? Or have things gotten worse?”

I have grown up in the midst of sexual scandals and I have pastored in communities that have been greatly affected by them, and I realize just how damaging it is for a church. But that pales in comparison to just how devastating it is for families and individuals. And I often wonder what the long-term effect of these wounds will look like.

People often describe to me what church was like in the 1950s. I wince when I hear people longing for that day. I know the mainline was in a position of power and influence, and I know that even the largest sanctuaries were full. But I would never go back.

My church, the church that I love, is full of color and diversity. It is full of women’s voices speaking out, clear and strong. It is full of gays and lesbians who can work, worship, and serve God in the fullness of their calling. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

But it is also a church whose members are wounded. The bruises are clear. And yet… for some reason, we haven’t given up. We are still drawn together, in this painful and sacred process of healing.

photo by Sasha with an X


The quick fix

Usually when I speak at churches, conferences, and judicatories, I begin by telling people what adults under forty generally look like. I tell them about their employment, financial, and social situations.

And usually, about halfway into the discussion, I hear an impatient and frustrated, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. I get all this. But, what I want to know is, how do I get young adults into my church?” They want to know what kind of advertising campaign they should begin, what kind of curriculum they can buy, what program they can start, what kind of music they should sing, what they can do to get the next generation in their church NOW.

Unfortunately, although I am a very practical person and I have a very pragmatic approach to igniting church vitality, I cannot help them with that. The reason that I use the metaphor of “tribe” is to emphasize that effective ministry with young adults is about building relationships. Those connections take time, effort, and understanding.

But (if I can be so crass and use an unfortunate ministry metaphor) we, as church leaders, want to skip all that meaningless conversation, all those hours in the movie theater and eating nice dinners. We don’t want the walks in the park or the holding hands. We want to score.

Churches may have difficulties reaching out to young adults and building those relationships if we fail to understand where they’re at. We just can’t run to home base, without ever visiting first, second, and third.

As congregations, the first thing that we can do is start caring about young adults. Caring about their student loans and slim job opportunities, caring about the fact that 30% of them have no health insurance, caring about the fact that their jobs only last 2.7 years. We can begin by understanding what this amount of instability does to a person’s ability to form relationships and make lasting commitments. We can begin listening to what young adults have to say about gaining leadership in our congregations. We can even listen to what they think about sexuality.

There are other things that will be important as we move along, many more concrete and realistic steps that we can take. But, first, we have to care enough to listen.

The photo’s by mike.in.ny

Raising the bar

At my last church, one of the first things that I did was recall the history of the congregation with an elder. She was sharp, insightful, and honest. I appreciated the way that she could come to quick assessments of each pastor. There was one in the history that people rarely talked about, but she didn’t hesitate. She began by saying, “He made me a better leader.”

“Really? How?” I asked. Curious to hear more about the pastor.

“He just expected a lot out of us.”

Later on, when I shuffled through his files, I could see that he expected a lot from them and from himself.

This stuck with me. I’m not sure I’m that great at expecting a lot out of people. I often say, “Well… you know… they’re volunteers.” Meaning, you have to learn to settle, you can’t be too disappointed in the quality of work, you just have to appreciate what you get, and realize the fact that you can never fire them.

But I’ve been wondering lately if I’m going about this wrong. I think I need to have a long chat with Miriam’s Kitchen chef, Steve Badt. Miriam’s is the feeding and social services organization in our church, and if there’s one thing that I notice (even though I can’t volunteer much there myself), it is that Steve expects a lot from the volunteers. He expects high quality food, served with the utmost consideration, and he’s an absolute stickler about the health and safety of the clients. He expects a lot and he appreciates them a lot. And they have a waiting list for volunteers.

Now… I don’t know about you, but I have never, ever heard of a feeding program where you have to get there by 6:00 a.m. to serve the homeless, and it has a waiting list for volunteers.

Last Sunday night, as the college students gathered together for music and dinner, we heard from Amiko Rorick, who works as a Special Assistant to the CEO on Strategic Initiatives at the Corporation for National and Community Service. In her role, she focuses on ways to further engage students in communities. In short, she’s an expert on volunteerism.

She talked about a trend that seems very interesting. Typically, we have the idea that we should hire people for the tough, skilled jobs, and then use volunteers for the mindless work. But research is showing that for every 5 volunteers who sign up, only 2-3 actually stick with it. When trying to figure out why, they find that volunteers disengage because they feel useless, like their skills and gifts are not truly being tapped. They’re not challenged enough. And so non-profits are starting to look at things differently.

They are finding volunteers for the difficult jobs and hiring people for the mindless ones. They expect more from their volunteers, and the volunteers are happier.

So what works for you? Do you have high expectations? What do you do to appreciate your volunteers? Are you able to keep them engaged? How do you manage to raise the bar?

Weekend update

I’m in a hotel in Smithfield, North Carolina, getting ready to lead a workshop at their Growing Together event. I met with the other conference and presbytery leaders leaders for dinner last night.

A snapshot:

I met an 84-year-old woman, whose mother was a suffragist. She told us stories about what women had to go through for the vote. Many of them went on hunger strikes, then they would be jailed and force-fed.

I saw a former professor after ten years. He’s talking about Fundamentalism tomorrow.

I met a woman who lives in a retirement community with scholars and pastors. That evening, she was going back to hear her neighbor, Rosemary Radford Ruether, give a lecture on “Feminism and Sarah Palin.” I couldn’t figure out if I would really love living in a place like that or not. What would you say?

I met Christian educators who love their jobs, and who take them very seriously. And, as a pastor, I have to say, I have such a deep and abiding respect for Christian Educators who are called there. You know… when it’s not a stop on their way to something “better”?

Also, there are a couple of other things are coming up…. In our neck of the woods, I’ll be leading a Transforming Congregations seminar next Saturday (September 27) with David Williams, at Trinity Church in Bethesda. It will run from 9:00 a.m. to noon. You don’t need to sign up, just show up.

And I don’t think it’s too late to sign up for the LEARN online course at Andover Newton. It will be running from September 29 through October 24. 9/22 edit. I was wrong about the Andover Newton course. Registration ended on the 19th.

I think that’s it. I’ll check back later.

Hope does not disappoint

I was visiting with a nearby church governing body, talking about Tribal Church, and the pastor asked, “The book is very hopeful, but do you think it might be too hopeful?”

It’s a good question. Six million young adults have left our churches (evangelical and mainline). We cannot keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results. We will need to change.

But we will change. There is no doubt about that fact. There is going to be a major, undeniable shift in the next twenty years. In my denomination, the PC(USA), 40% of our churches do not have pastors. Most of those churches are under 100 members and cannot afford ministers.

Add to that, we have a swell of Baby Boomers who will be retiring in the coming years, so that we will go from 700 retirees per year to almost twice that number. With that level of overturn, there is no way that the landscape of our denomination will look the same. Things will alter dramatically as a new generation comes into power. We do not need to force it. It will be a natural evolution.

And, as most pastors learn, when a church is in upheaval, when people are grieving the past, the best thing to do is to give people hope. I don’t see any point in berating church leaders for not being relevant enough, or effective enough, or good enough. I don’t see how that gets us anywhere. (Although… I have noticed our strange love for people who beat us up… I just don’t think that’s the most effective approach.)

But I did not write about hope for the mainline because I think it’s an empty motivator. I didn’t just do it because I think it’s a pragmatic tool. I wrote a hopeful book because I have a very optimistic outlook for our church.

When we look at the churches that are closing, we realize that the money for the sale of the property will go back to the local governing body. Then the proceeds often go for developing new churches. And, it just seems to me that the Holy Spirit must be moving in all of this, because there is, at the same time, a generation of pastors who want to plant churches. They are innovators, and they can’t wait to start something fresh and new.

I have hope for our denominational churches, because we have been advocates for social justice for decades, even when it wasn’t popular. And, in the years to come, the college students who grew up with W, are leaning quite heavily to the left.

And while we’re looking at adults under 25, we can also note that they’re not snarky and cynical like me and much of my generation. They are much more institutionally and community minded. They are less likely to do drugs. They do things like vote and join organizations. And, if we’re smart, they might even start joining churches. They are, numerically, huge. Much bigger than the Boomers. 

I have hope for our denominational churches, because we have spent years in prayer and meditation. We have practiced the art of discernment in troubled times. We have held fast to our intellectual integrity. And we have been wresting with some deep issues concerning unity and diversity. We hold all of these spiritual traditions in our bellies. And this is a time when the world is hungry for them.  

Photo by Helmut Gondim

When it’s better left said

When I left my last call, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We had just turned some major corners. The church was growing. We just finished the congregation’s first successful building campaign. The flowerbeds were brightening; the windows were being repaired. The people who swore up and down that they would “never, ever have a woman pastor” had finally changed their minds. And then… before I even had a real chance to understand what was going on, I was called somewhere else.

For me, it was like God basically parted all the clouds in the sky and pointed down and said, “Here. I want you here. Now.” Seriously, things don’t usually work that way for me, but I have never been so sure about a call in my life and probably never will be again.

When I explained that I was leaving the church for an associate position, things went from bad to worse. Many people in my church could understand letting me go, but they were furious that I was going someplace where I wasn’t going to be preaching every Sunday. They saw it as a waste. And since it wasn’t a clear step up, they didn’t know why I was taking it.

All this to say… it can be ugly. And heartbreaking.

And one of the most difficult decisions that we have to make when we leave a position is this: How honest should we be? I mean, if it’s been a difficult call, and the church needs to face some serious issues, and you weren’t able to work through them, should you tell them?

It’s a lot easier not to. It’s a lot easier to play nice, to ride off into the sunset without getting into it. A person can count on getting better references in the future that way.

But, if you’re at a congregation where the last five pastors left for the same reason and no one has said to them, “This is why I’m leaving,” shouldn’t someone say something?

Now, of course, it is always better to face the difficulties when you are there, instead of on the way out, but sometimes people leave unexpectedly. Or sometimes when people find out that you are leaving, they let you in on the congregation’s secrets. Sometimes after you make that important announcement, some significant issues come up. You find out about the sexual harassment that members had been hiding, or the financial shadiness that was lurking in the church’s history. And it is better that you have the strength and the stamina to deal with them.

I guess the bottom line is this… what’s good for the church? Of course, it’s not good to give them a laundry list of “All the terrible things that you’ve done to me.” And it doesn’t help a church to hear, “This is why I’m leaving and this why you’re such an awful, dysfunctional group.”

Yet if there are some things that are clear, it may be a good thing to have a constructive, loving heart-to-heart with some key church leaders. It’s not fun, but it’s all a part of the process.

The photo is by Bob Jagendorf. His profile’s worth a visit, the photos are beautiful.