A gift for the next generation

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One of the amazing things about our congregation is that I look out on it, and realize that I would be friends with a good 85% of the people there, even if I just met them out on the street.

You know how it is. As a pastor, you love people. You learn to deeply appreciate them. And often, you grow these wonderful friendships with men and women whom you would never ordinarily interact with. That’s the beauty of church. But, for some reason, I am now in a very enviable position of being around people whom I love, appreciate, and would be friends with.

At the church, our book club picks out books that I would read. Groups get together for theater nights to see shows that I would pick out. And… I feel a bit guilty about this… but… we probably vote the same way. Most of us get outraged about Styrofoam cups, our medical system, and exclusive language for God.

I have never been in a church like this. Most of the time, I have been the pastor who’s making a big deal out of the war when everyone else is boycotting “French” fries.

It makes me extremely thankful for the church that I serve. When I was looking for a congregation, I read Let Your Life Speak, and realized that in the next call, I needed to pastor a church that I would ordinarily attend. And now I do.

As much as it makes me grateful for the congregation that I’m in, strangely enough, it also makes me thankful for the congregations that I served in previous years.

I was a skilled pastor, and yet I was a good thirty years younger than most of my congregation. I was continually reminded of the palpable longing for the retired interim who came before me. I thought that it was because he spent every afternoon in each person’s home—and so I would try to keep up with the visitations, but it would never be enough. I was trying to redevelop the church, and that’s difficult to do if you spend every afternoon with the elderly women in your congregation.

It wasn’t just about the number of hours in each living room. I know now that it wasn’t just the daily visitations for which they longed. It was also the friendship. A friendship with someone who was at the end of his career, working out what he was going to do with his retired days, whether he was going to take a trip to Europe this year or the next. In contrast, I was a scrappy young pastor with a child who was trying to figure out how to pay for her utility bills. He lived in a swanky neighborhood, instead of a starter home, in a city my parishioners looked down upon. He was an equal, a friend, in a way that I never could be.

And as much as I was frustrated by it then, I am feeling thankful that they welcomed me. They must have really enjoyed having a pastor who was a friend. Not in the forced sense, but in that comfortable sense. They read the same books, they went to the same theater, and they probably voted the same way. They would have been friends with him if they had met him on the street. And yet, they gave a gift to the next generation of the church by hiring me.

We are in a particularly difficult point in our denominational life. We have churches that are dwindling, and fewer of them can call pastors. The average age of our parishioners is getting higher each year. We have a lot of retired ministers who are reluctant to let go of their jobs, because they have a great deal to offer, and because they receive tremendous financial incentives to hold on to their positions.

On the other hand, we have many, many young pastors who are looking for calls. And if we’re going to be a faith that is proclaimed from generation to generation, we cannot neglect to hire, support, sustain young pastors, even if current congregants feel uncomfortable with them. Even if they would not normally be friends with them.

Why? Because youth attracts youth. Young pastors will reach out with ease to their friends. If they are allowed to flourish, many ministers are able to bring people into their congregations who look like them. That might be a scary proposition for many older church members. But, if they are able to put their own need for pastoral friendships aside, then their church will gain a life beyond them. It could be a very selfless gift for the next generation.

Photo by Teddy

What we want

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I am stepping on to some shaky blogging territory (shaky blogging territory here equals writing something in a public forum that you hope a particular person does not read)… but… here goes….

I met someone who works for a denominational publishing house, who said, five minutes after our first hello, “We would never publish one of your books.”

I’m not sure why he said it. And, of course, I was offended. I mean, I can understand getting a rejection letter after sending in a proposal. But I hadn’t sent in a proposal. I had not even hinted that I would try to send in a proposal.

He went on, “Your material is not scholarly enough.”

The truth is that this house often publishes less-than-scholarly material. I laughed and pointed that out. And I also pointed out that my book sells very well, thank you very much. And then my mind went on an extended mental rant as I thought about how I would never enquire with them anyways, and that my book is used in seminaries, and ….

Yeah… that’s right. I’m a big baby.

I have had more conversations with him, which have been much nicer. But, this initial discussion came to my mind when I was at a focus group for another, much larger, progressive religious publisher. They were asking pastors what they needed, and our answers often gravitated to the same thing, “We need books that we can hand to our church members, not seminary books.”

And, I think it was Anne Howard who suggested, “Conservative religious books are grass roots. Progressive religious books are academic.”

We all shook our heads and the same cry echoed around the table, “Please, give us some smart, grass-roots books.” And we described our congregations: they are intelligent and passionate. They could tell you about the entire complicated tribal system in Afghanistan, but they may not know much about the Bible. We need books for that person.

Maybe conservatives assume that they will have converts and progressives assume that everyone grew up in the church. I don’t know, but we need those basic books.

There are some wonderful Ph.D.’s who can write on a grass-roots level, who fit this bill, but we can’t always look to the academy for what we need.

And so, I make my plea to my progressive publishing friends. Don’t dismiss those books that are for regular people. As pastors, we need to be able to hand a good book to intelligent parishioners who just might be starting out with this whole church thing. I also get requests for daily devotional books, marriage books, basic Bible books, finance books from a Christian perspectice—as progressives, we have things to say about ordinary life, and the people in the pews are really wanting to hear it.

So let’s hear it. Pastors and church leaders, what requests do you get?

Photo by Ansy

How to spot a mega-church refugee

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Okay… they are out there. They slip into our churches, wanting to be unnoticed. They are the mega-church refugees.

After two decades of hand clapping, arm waving, and metal chair sitting, they gave themselves a reprieve from church. But now, they want something, and they’re pretty sure they don’t want their parent’s boomer church, with the charismatic pastor and the Limbaugh-induced sermons. And so a few of them are slipping into our pews. Looking around, wearily, cautiously.

What do they look like? How can you spot them? I have a few pointers, since I was one of them.

•Even though they love the environmental aspects of the screen, they might break out into a bit of a cold sweat when they see it in the sanctuary.

•They might bring their Bibles to church. Do not be alarmed when you see the book. Try not to stare. And don’t worry. They will figure out quickly that they’re not supposed to bring it.

•Their personal Bible in their pew does give them a little comfort because they can’t immediately tell the difference between hymnal, prayer book, and Bible in the pew. They will pick up the wrong one. At least until they figure out that no one else really follows along with the readings, because they are the only ones who know how to look them up.

•If they’re particularly moved by a solo, they will clap following it. Once. Until they figure out that it’s not okay. Then they will die a little bit inside.

•They never missed a Sunday at church growing up, but they don’t know the Apostle’s Creed. They are the ones mumbling “watermelon” when the rest of the congregation is proudly articulating every word.

•They might say “Amen” after the pastor says it. It’s just a reflex. And don’t laugh at them if they use “just” in their prayers. At least they know how to pray in public.

•They are the people who would rather leave their right arm than leave their email address.

•They may not have been going to church for the last ten years, because they were afraid that they couldn’t afford it.

•If they happen into a denominational church during Stewardship Sunday, they may never come back. Only because, in their mind, asking for money is what church is about every Sunday.

•If they hear how much your church is involved with helping the homeless and poor, then they will start to breathe. And they might be able to leave something in the offering.

•If you mention that your church supports LGBTs, then the muscles in their neck will loosen. They will be utterly confused, but very relieved.

•They are confused by communion. They might not have even ever participated in communion before.

•If someone tries to hug during the passing of the peace, they will have finely-developed defense mechanisms in order to shield themselves from the Holy Spirit chest crunch.

•If the pastor learns their name after a couple of weeks, they just might faint dead away.

•If the church has a discussion about having a “contemporary” worship service in order to reach out to more people, they will assume that you’re trying to get their parents to come to your church.

And what would you add? Have you been there? Have you seen them?

Responses that take more than 140 characters…

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So those of you who follow Bruce Reyes-Chow, the Presbyterian Moderator, on Twitter, know that he has been talking about certain conferences, and prodding us, wondering about our Mainline interest or disinterest in them.

And those of you who follow both of us know that I have been rather old-school, angry, and vehement in my responses to such conferences. (Old-school, meaning I’ve been taking a black-and-white, us-versus-them, my-way-or-the-highway approach.)

It actually kind of shocked me. I have a lot of opinions–there’s no doubt about that–but usually I can appreciate the viewpoints of Evangelical colleagues, even though I think that they’re wrong about many things. I have learned to embrace my heritage, as something that is an important part of me. If I hate it, then I hate myself. (Of course, there’s a fine line here. I do hate the sin that was inherent in my Evangelical formation, and confess it, and change….)

But, for some reason, my reaction to the Catalyst Conferences overwhelmed me. And I wondered why that was.

Was it jealousy? There are as many Mainliners as there are Evangelicals (and I realize that there is a lot of cross-over in terms here), but Evangelicals almost completely drive the religious book market, the religious media, and politics, because of the fantastic ability that Evangelicals have to organize huge events, and to find unity in vital causes. Authors and musicians who get invited to these sorts of conferences do really, really well. I was warned constantly when I wrote Tribal Church to make it an Evangelical book, or it would never sell.

But, I don’t think jealousy was fueling my frustration. I think the main character in the driver’s seat was fear. As you can see from the line-up, there were very few women involved in The Nines, and (I think) only one ordained woman. I’m afraid of going backwards. It’s irrational, I know. But the fear and anger are still there.

It was very difficult growing up in a religious tradition that saw me as sinful because of my growing call into ordained ministry. It was painful watching many of the women in my family, who had the same calling, not be able to pursue theirs. It’s difficult to think of all the Bible school students in my “message preparation for women course” (we were not allowed to call it preaching), where I heard some of the best sermons in my life, who pursued their M-R-S in the hopes of being a pastor’s wife, because that was the very closest that they could come to being a pastor themselves.

I understand the religious viewpoint that women should not be ordained. I know that an Evangelical conference will have a handful of women, and we should not expect more that that. But I also understand the deep sorrow and frustration that church can cause from the sexism that bleeds from generation to generation. And when I’m faced with it, then I bark, in anger and pain, as if I’m facing a dog that previously bit me.

The denominational church, even with all of the ordination difficulties, even with its less-than-flashy conferences, and its inability to unite across denominational lines to become a stronger voice in publishing and politics, has been an unbelievable font of grace for me. Welcoming my gifts, encouraging them, and allowing a place for them to flourish. And even though there have been bumps along the way, there is a way for someone like me. And I am filled with overwhelming gratitude to be a part of it.

I left the Evangelical Church, because the Mainline church—with its strong commitment to social justice, gender equality, spiritual disciplines, and intergenerational community—seemed much more relevant. And yet, now that I’m inside, I find many Mainliners wishing that we were like Evangelicals, so that we might gain relevancy.

I just wish we, the Mainliners, could see what gifts we have, celebrate them, and I guess along the way… I wish that we could learn to organize a little better.

Under care

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In the Presbyterian Church, we call the process of ordination being “Under Care.” It is supposed to be a time of discernment, when we listen for God and our community to find out if we are called into pastoral ministry.

As an admittedly naïve twenty-three-year-old in the process, I took this to be the truth. I felt that I needed to be as honest as possible, and that my community would support me. This worked for me, most of the time, until I got to one sticky point in the process… and then, a trusted professor and friend took me aside, and said, “This is not a time for total and complete honesty. You need to start treating every step in this process as a job interview, not a discernment group.”

I am so thankful for the advice. I quickly changed my attitude, and gathered support from other people as I struggled with the very crucial decision of whether I was called into the ministry. It reminded me of the many complications of our ordination system. It can be a very difficult and most un-caring process.

While we (my husband and I) were “under care,” our promised book money was taken away from us. We were told that a church governing body was using us as a “political football,” and we ended up being thousands of dollars in debt.

While we were “under care,” we were homeless for three months. We had a job and a manse waiting for us. But there was some mix-up in the paperwork… and paperwork came before people. So we lived out of a tent.

I bring this up, not because I’m carrying resentments ten years later. Although I did feel sucker-punched at the time, years later I can identify that along with these frustrations also came wonderful moments of people who supported me in my journey.

But I bring it up because I hear too many horror stories, of church budgets being slashed, and along with the budgets, the seminary scholarships get gouged. And seminary students end up suddenly not knowing how they are going to pay for groceries for their small children.

A Psychologist gives out a strange result for a candidate’s exam, and then she find out that the good “Doctor” has hit on three female seminarians in her class.

And, don’t get me started on the ordination exams….

I guess what I’m trying to impress is the message that the professor gave to me. The church, in their most idealistic and hopeful moments, wants this to be a process that is full of love and concern and care. They want to walk alongside their candidates and support them.

But they don’t always do that. And in some ways they can’t. It’s like the ideal of your pastor being your counselor, or your Executive Presbyter being your pastor. There are so many complications in these roles….

So, I implore you who are “under care,” try to gather a real caring community. One in which you can really share your doubt and frustrations. One who knows your family, in which you can count on, who will not look at you as a line item in the budget that can easily be slashed. One that realized the importance of listening to your struggles, doubts, and fears.

You deserve that, as a candidate, and you will need it as a pastor.

Wasted youth

We interviewed Jeff Sharlet, the author of The Family, on God Complex Radio yesterday (as usual, you can click on the right to hear the interview). It was pretty fascinating. He was a part of Ivanwald, a home for men, who are the chosen ones. They were men from affluent households, who were being groomed, through hard work, close mentorships, and prayer meetings for leadership. Ivanwald also has a connection to C Street, a home for congressmen who are connected to the Family and have been highlighted in a number of scandals lately. The Family is a secretive, and extremely powerful fundamentalist group.

It was actually a pretty emotional experience for me, reading the book. I don’t want to over-play my relationship to the Religious Right—I left it before I turned twenty-one. But it answered a lot of questions for me.

It also reminded me of many of the differences between my Conservative roots and my Progressive present. Most of the shifts are wonderful, and I embrace them, but reading this haunting history reminded me that there are some things that we can… well… I’m groping for words here… learn from Conservatives? Things that I’m thankful for?

One of the most shocking realizations as I read this book is the lack of mentoring that happens in Progressive circles. I always hear people who lived through the 60s, decrying the fact that there are no good young leaders. We have a leadership vacuum. There is no respected, loud and clear voice, speaking out for progressive values.

It always confused me, because I’m surrounded by smart, young progressive leaders. To me, it seemed like they were speaking clearly, but no one was listening.

Yet, as I work more and more within our progressive faith tradition, I realize that there is almost an undercurrent of hostility toward the young. I feel it often. Working with generational issues, all across the country, I am always hitting on some raw wound. It often comes up when I point out sociological research that says that Generation X is the most innovative generation in our country’s history. We have more entrepreneurs, we’ve started more companies, fueled the tech boom, etc.

People often get furious.

And let me be clear. I brought up Gen X because their span still includes people in their 20s. But I’m not talking about people like me. I’m not so young any more. I’m talking about those who are younger than me. For instance, I have also been startled by attitudes toward Campus Ministry.

I have been working with college students, in one way or another, ever since I became a pastor, because it’s important. I know that we are overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Campus Crusade for Christ (which always makes me wonder… what college student wants to be a part of a “crusade”? What organization would embrace that name? The crusades were a dark and terrible blot for Christians…), Intervarsity, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Even on George Washington University’s campus, where most of the students are politically progressive, why would CCC’s ministry be so robust?

Well, I’m not sure how many full-time staff that CCC has on George Washington University campus, but I know it’s at least two. At least 80 hours a week dedicated to developing young Christian leaders. In comparison, I work ten hours a week, and I am in a constant struggle for funding to hold on to the ten hours.

Most of our Campus Ministers, in Mainline Denominations across the country, spend most of their time trying to justify their jobs, and trying to fundraise in the midst of denominations who question our existence. Denominational funding has been slashed, governing bodies don’t understand the point, the local church feels to strapped to reach out. There is always something more pressing than Campus Ministry.

There would never be a question in a conservative church. Never. If the ministry was struggling, they would fire the person and put someone effective in. Why? Because they are just much more focused on young leadership. They don’t wait for young leaders to kick down the doors, they open the doors for young leaders. And if there is no door to open, they build a door for them.

It seems that we have lost our vision in Mainline Christianity for mentoring, challenging, developing, and loving young leadership. There are exceptions (thank God) to this overarching theme. Will Willimon spoke about his frustrations on this issue quite clearly. But, it still remains as the most startling difference between the two cultures.