Miriam’s Kitchen on CNN

Miriam’s Kitchen, the feeding and social services program at Western, was on Anderson Cooper yesterday. They’re doing amazing things, in difficult times.


Prime of life

I was speaking at a meeting for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington recently, and we were thinking about different generations and the church. One priest—he was in his thirties—reflected, “I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and it was the center of my life, just as it was for former generations. But the thing I always heard about was how great it was back then. From the time I began attending church, I knew that I was a part of declining church.”

I nodded my head in agreement. I remember this feeling in seminary, when everyone seemed to be in an institutional mid-life crisis. I was in my twenties, and I didn’t want any part of that longing to look back.

Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at our histories, but the yearning to turn our heads backwards, wanting to be the church of yesterday, always made our denomination seem like a washed-up cheerleader, getting out her old glossy yearbook, placing it on her much-wider thighs, stroking it, sighing deeply, wishing that she could be eighteen again. Wondering how she could relive those magical high school years.

We’re no longer in high school, and actually, the yearning to become something that we are not drowned out as I became a pastor. There was too much planning and excitement going on in the local church that we didn’t have too much time to sentimentalize those bygone decades. The times I am reminded of them now are at denominational meetings, when someone stands up with the newsflash that the Mainlines are now on the sidelines.

The pastors that I typically hang around with are working in interesting churches, and trying out all sorts of new things. They are frustrated with congregations that want “those young families,” but don’t trust the pastor enough to do what would attract them. And they are irritated with congregations that have all of their customs in place, so that there’s no openness to any new ideas that those young adults might have. This can be irritating for any church leader, and it’s particularly frustrating for church leaders who are under the age of 45.

We’ve grown up in a world where innovation is rewarded over history and tradition. We are an entrepreneurial generation, so to put us in a system where everything was decided fifty years ago and there’s no room for creativity can be highly annoying. The tensions are real and strong. And, I’m very thankful for them. They are the sign of life and vitality.

The other signs of life are new church developments. There seems to be a common thread with Presbyterians. Often, when we talk about new churches, people automatically look at the failure rate. NCDs are seen as a bad investment.

I’ve been working with church development committees for years, and I know about the failings. I know about the “new” congregations that have been holding steady with 25 members for the last 10 years. And yet, (as Seth Godin points out) new churches grow the fastest. When we look nationally, we know that the congregations that are getting bigger rather than smaller are often the new ones.

If we’re looking at the investment of our resources (and as more churches close, there will be more resources), it seems that we should invest those resources in the one area of our denominations that are growing. As we engage leadership that wasn’t alive in the 50s or even the 60s, it will be important not to keep them trapped. We can, instead, let their innovative energy flourish in new ways.

Waiting for ord results

Seminary students in my good denomination are waiting for their ordination exam results to come in today. And, based on history, more than half of our seniors will fail our exams. By January, the number will whittle down to 37 percent. We have talked about the failure rate on this site before, but I would like to keep discussing this.

I do not think that ordination is a right. I realize that we need to discern as individuals and communities. And yet, why are we happy that 37 percent of our seniors will not be able to look for calls upon graduation?

I know that 37 percent is about the same rate as lawyers, but the law has certain incentives (such as money and prestige) that would attract more candidates to the profession. We simply do not have the same incentives.

If we are using the exams to weed out students, are they weeding out the right ones? When we take these exams, we are told over and over again, “Don’t be too creative. Don’t be too smart. Shoot for passing. Shoot for average.” Anyone who tries to be smart or creative is seen as a “show off.”

I ask this because… just from my observations… it seems like we are getting rid of some really, really fine candidates. Of course, they often go to other denominations, where they have flourishing ministries. But, shouldn’t we start asking ourselves, Why should we spend all of this money training pastors for other denominations?

These are tough financial times, so, while we’re at it, why don’t we start asking, Do we want to continue pouring so much money into education and ministry preparation, when we are going to turn away 37 percent of our candidates at the end of the day?

When we ask people to consider seminary, are we supposed to tell them that they have about a 37 percent chance of not making it? Can we, in good conscience, really ask people to go into 30 to 40 thousand dollars worth of debt, watch them make great grades in seminary, and then tell them that they can’t pursue ordination because they didn’t pass an ord exam?

How are seminaries going to keep recruiting, if they have to say, “Well, it will take you three years to get the Masters, and then at the end of it, there’s about a 40 percent chance that you won’t be able to look for a job”?

Consider some facts:

Forty percent of churches in our denomination do not have pastors.
The number of retiring ministers each year will soon double.
The number of students entering our seminaries has gone down dramatically this year.
Our denomination would like to start planting 400 churches every year.

When you add to that, the number of pastors who burnout or leave the ministry during their first call, shouldn’t we begin to ask ourselves, Are we ready for the challenges in the years to come?

the photo is by john faherty photography

Emerging traditions

I’m banging my way through this book, ever concerned about the deadline that’s looming, close on the horizon. I’m writing about cultural shifts, and how they affect our spiritual communities in a new generation.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana, who is in my writing group and is helping me with the project a great deal, asked me, “It’s like emerging church for the mainline?”

“Hmmm… well… yes… sort of … I guess….”

I am, as many of you know, in a constant struggle with realizing that paramount shifts to postmodernism have occurred, knowing that I am postmodern, and accepting that people label me emerging. I am a part of presbymergent and have great hope for the creative energy that flows there, but not entirely comfortable with all things emerging. Yet, as Shawn Coons and Jim Bonewald have reminded me on occasion, there are different emerging church movements, not just one. That’s comforting.

One of the main things that I have difficulty with within the emerging church movements (even the denominational-mergents) is the quick assumption that those who are emerging from an evangelical tradition are somehow more in touch with culture than us—the stuffy, old, hierarchical mainliners.

We are far from perfect. We have important questions to ask ourselves, significant changes that will be made. And many of those questions are being asked in emerging church circles. 

If I’m honest, I’ll tell you that I’m not only emerging from the mainline church, but also from the evangelical church in which I grew up. I was educated in both. They both reside uncomfortably within me. With that perspective, the thought that evangelicalism is more in tune with postmodern culture than mainline denominations is really, really odd.

Evangelicalism is, on the surface, much more culturally flexible. Many evangelical congregations will change their worship style if they know that it will attract more members. They may not like it, but they’ll do it. Since the focus is outward, they easily alter their traditions to the surrounding culture. Their main goal is evangelizing, so they adapt to different advertising techniques, image makeovers, and technological advances. Evangelicals quickly grasp on to trends.

And, most importantly, they plant new churches. They have a deep sense that the best way to reach out to a “different people group” is to start a new congregation.

In comparison, when we talk about planting churches in Presbyterian circles, we instantly point out the failure rate, and argue that it’s a bad investment (as if closing churches, hoarding money, and turning away new leadership is a really great business plan…). Our cultural standards and advertising almost always favor the tastes and preferences of the elderly, and in an established church, any deviation is rare and difficult to pull off. There can be a sense that new generations need to develop an appreciation for our practices, while we have little patience for any adaptation of our traditions.

Yet, I have to say, beyond that surface level, when you scratch just a little bit, the mainline church makes a lot more sense than the evangelical tradition in a postmodern era. That’s why I converted and that’s why I stay.

We have embraced scientific thought, not expecting the newest discoveries to bow and bend to a six-day creation story. We have wrestled with biblical literalism, and taken postmodern insights in hermeneutics seriously. We have questioned theories of atonement for decades. We have upheld the inherent value and equality of women in our homes, workplaces, political arenas, and congregations. We have been engaging in social justice issues, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, responding to disasters, and helping the homeless. We do not do these things only for Christians or as a manipulative evangelistic tool. But we have also been doing it in the public sphere, working for change in people’s lives, because we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of humans, of “the Other.”

Communities that are emerging from the evangelical tradition are beginning to wrestle with many of these things, but they have a lot of work ahead of them before they catch up with the mainlines.

Where does that leave us now?  We have a cadre of congregations that have been formed in the mold, tastes, and expectations of fifty years ago. Will we, the mainline church, be able to open ourselves up a bit, and welcome a culture of people who do not long for the 50s or even 60s? Will we be able to welcome the reforming of our sacred traditions in a new culture? Or, will we allow our fears to overwhelm us?

I guess what I’m asking is this: Will we allow our congregational cultures to be as vigorous and engaging as our great academic and theological traditions have been? Will we begin to wrestle with the important questions of planting churches? And will we allow our congregations to be reformed and always reforming?

the photo’s by Diana Pappas

Train of thought

Recently, I was surprised to hear someone say that Western is not an urban church.

“What?” I replied, “What do you mean? We’re right downtown. We feed homeless people. Our church is a vital part of this city.”

“Well, you’re more like a suburban church.”

Still confused, I asked, “We have people who commute from the suburbs to attend church here, but how can you say we’re a suburban church?”

“Well, there’s not as much diversity. And people are in a different position economically.”

“Huh? Are we talking about the same church?” In fact, in our congregation, there are people from all parts of the globe, and every social strata. On any given Sunday, you can find a CEO worshiping alongside a homeless person.

Then it dawned on me. She’s from an different generation than I am, so she was saying that it was not an urban church because it is not predominately an African-American church. She was thinking of the 1960s “white flight” narrative that a lot of people use to explain the urban context. According to that narrative, young professionals buy suburban properties, live far away from their work, so that they can enjoy white schools and big lawns.

My defining narratives are different. They look more like Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City (well… they would look like that, except that all of the characters in these shows have a startling lack of color). I grew up on the beach, but like many in my generation, I was longing to live in the city.

I don’t mean to portray us as shallow. You know, most women don’t aspire to be Carrie Bradshaw… I’m just pointing out a trend, a reality that the art of television learned to mirror long ago. Urban centers have changed, due to a new generation of young adults who love the arts, desire diversity, and care for creation. Even parents, who formerly fled the city because of education, are often drawn closer now, because they hate what the commute time is doing to their family time.  

Urban ministry looks different now, because urban centers look a lot different now.

I tried to move into D.C. As a pastor in the city, I was determined to move into the urban center. However, the Capitol Hill real estate agent had a perfunctory “get real” conversation with me when she saw my income. There was no way that our family could afford a home in any D.C. neighborhood. In fact, when we lowered our standards and looked for a rental, we couldn’t manage that either.

So, we moved to Arlington, where I have just a seven-minute commute from the church. Arlington’s not really a sleepy bedroom community. We have a lot of industry here (you know… like that little operation we call the Pentagon…), and the city is exceptionally green, so they intentionally build up around metro stops.

Anyways, this is just one more transformation that our churches and denominations will need to get used to. When we think of an “urban church,” our minds cannot automatically shift to the white flight narrative, because our urban centers are much more diverse now. There is a rich variety of ethnicities, ages, and incomes there.

And, as we think about planting churches, we could take a tip from my good city. We can begin to focus our development near the trains–the metro, subways, CTA, Marta, El, what-have-you. Because if we are building a church for the next generation, these hubs are where they now reside.

Photo’s by monitorprop

Discriminating tastes

Recent conversation with Someone Who Would Know:

SWWK: Pastors are having a really difficult time finding jobs right now.

Me: Really? Why is that?

SWWK: Because, if there’s anything wrong with them, if they’re overweight, if they have a disability, churches just won’t call them.

Then, SWWK told me a couple of stories. I heard about the man who had a disability, and wrestled with whether he should tell the pastor nominating committee. He didn’t think he should have to, he thought it was his own private matter. But he also knew that the church would find out eventually, and he didn’t want them to resent him. So he told them. And they turned him down. No one said officially that the disability had anything to do with it, but those closed-door conversations have a way of seeping out into the hallway….

I know congregations who have a lack of imagination when it comes to younger pastors. If there are no gray hairs to be found, then committees automatically assume that the person has not had enough experience to manage a church.

And, I’m told about the other end of the spectrum as well. If a person’s over 55, then she better find something quick, because her options dwindle significantly as the clock keeps ticking.

When I graduated, I was informed that I would have a difficult time finding a job because I am short. I laughed. But now I wonder… is it really a factor?

We know that it happens. It happens a lot in our workforces. We know that a woman’s weight has a significant affect on her income, especially in male-dominated fields. I once read that a woman has a better chance of a promotion if she loses 20 pounds than if she gets another degree.

We hope that it would be different in the church. We hope that our spiritual communities would be able to look beyond appearance, age, or disability to what God was doing in through a person’s life.

Evidently not. That is becoming more and more apparent as I see who churches call.

“Because you’re in the public eye,” PeaceBang reminds us, “and God knows, you’ve got to look good.”

I’m disheartened by it. Hearing the stories, realizing the utter lack of imagination on the part of so many congregations. Seeing solid pastors turned down for cosmetic reasons. Knowing that we need to look good, but not too young…and not too old.

And then, on the other hand, hearing congregations moan about a leadership crisis in the church. Like there’s no one good available.

It’s all becoming increasingly annoying.

The photo’s entitled “Pastor Miguel” and it was taken by Chris Wigginton.

Cultivating healthy leadership

I’ve only got a couple of hours before I need to be on a plane to Kentucky, but there are a couple of things I want to tell you about.

I’ve been traveling and speaking a lot lately, to very diverse groups of people. It’s been interesting. It’s like going on a pastoral visit to the hospital. You can almost walk in the room and tell if the patient’s in intensive care, or if they’re just getting a wellness check-up on their healthy body. The gatherings have their own energy, vitality, interests, or lack thereof.

I’ll tell you quickly about two gatherings that were really wonderful, and I’ll try to point to some things that they were doing. First, the Bethany Fellows were a group of Disciples of Christ ministers under the age of forty, working with a Transition into Ministry grant. There were about forty pastors and a number of mentors who gave spiritual direction. They got together a couple of times each year, for a week. They met with innovative pastors and church developments, getting ideas about what church could be. And they had a “book talk” (which I hosted), where they all studied a book and had the author speak.

There were two things about the gathering that were beautiful. First, there was a sense of collegiality there. I think that part of this came from the way that the group was formed. They were not brought together by some rigorous application process in which some higher-ups selected the most promising pastors based on resume credentials. Rather, it was a self-nominating group. People invited their friends. The other part of it came because at the core of their time together, they prayed for one another. They even prayed for me.

I was trying to think back… trying to remember a time when I gathered with colleagues to pray… I mean, not that scripted Litany that we drone a thousand times at Presbytery when we commission or install someone (“we are one body, but different parts…” it’s time to come up with something new…). But prayed for each other, right there and then. After ten years in the ministry, I could not think of one time that colleagues prayed for each other that didn’t have to do with an ordination/installation tradition.

Second, out of that group of 40, about 10 of them were planting churches. I asked about this, and I was told that the Disciples were planning on planting 2010 churches by the year 2010. I wondered if they were actually going to reach their goal, and I was told, “Yes, I think so. We’re on target.”

Contrast that with the Presbyterians. We have about 14 new church plants starting nationally. C’mon now people… we don’t have to start 2000 in the next two years, but we can surely do better than that!

I do have some good things to say about Presbyterians, though. Just visited with the Presbytery of East Iowa. Two things struck me. First, they encouraged hospitality in their churches, and they did it by modeling it in their Presbytery.

They had a catering company that they used a lot. The pastors gathered together frequently, eating and drinking. They supported one another, and I heard from pastor after pastor, “This is the best Presbytery in the country.”

In a denomination where we can be all too ready to write off rural churches, where we often say, “We have empty pulpits, but they’re in rural areas, and nobody wants to go there,” East Iowa Presbytery is proving that logic wrong. They demonstrated that it is not necessarily the location, it is the amount of support, nurture, and care that pastors receive. That’s harder in rural areas, but not impossible.

Cultivating healthy leadership took a lot of time and intention. They did it by raising the minimum salary, and creating a community of support and friendship with their pastors.

Within that healthy pastoral leadership, they began asking, “If your church suddenly disappeared, would the community miss it?” The churches are guided and equipped by that question. It was given them a lens to view their community, a mission in their neighborhoods.

The photo’s by Jim Bonewald, the Church Geek