Monday, October 16, 2017

Post-fall gathering report

“What is the future of the church?”

It's probably no surprise to anyone that this is a question I get a lot. Different folks are trying to figure out what to do and and how to do it. There are concerns about whether or not we’re putting our resources into the right things or putting together the right programs. There are concerns brought up about the number of youth, children, families and young adults in our pews. There are concerns brought up about whether we are putting all we need to into the work of social justice. All these are great concerns and important questions to bring up but none of these have ever felt like the right place to focus, ultimately. Sometimes, the resources we think will save us - money, buildings, time - become less of something that serve a forward looking purpose and more of something we serve. Focusing on one program or another begins to feel more like a magical formula than a faithful one. We end up treating youth, children, families and young adults as a resources for a transfusion of idealism and energy more than equals. Although our faith and works of justice and service are inseparable, we sometimes look at the doing of this work as a marketing or evangelism campaign of sorts. Again, recognizing that we have to do more in all the areas is important but these things, in and of themselves, do not guarantee the future of the church.

Two weeks ago was the first fall gathering of the PNC at N-Sid-Sen. Most of you may remember that the initial intent of splitting the one spring meeting into two was to give people more of choice about what kind of meeting they wanted to attend. The intent was that the spring meeting would be the business meeting and the fall meeting would more of the programmatic meeting. But, as the committee did their planning, something changed in a significant way. The primary focus moved from being an extension of what we might learn together to providing a place and a format to deepen relationships with each other. The further along in the planning process the committee went, the more I became convinced this was the right thing and the more I became excited about what the planning committee was creating. What I saw at N-Sid-Sen proved that the right choices were made.

The best way I can describe it is that I saw the future of the church start to wake up. We had many of the same topics we’ve had during lots of workshops at Annual meeting relating to everything ranging from “Best Practices in Mission Trips;” the search and call process; deepening faith and relationships; community outreach; church finances and stewardship; “Overcoming Obstacles to Change;” and much more. The difference was that the task of those leading these sessions weren’t there as experts in one topic or another (although they frequently were experts). The task was to help facilitate conversations among those who were interested in the topic with each other and, in so doing, uncover the expertise that was already there and build relationships among those gathered. Over the weekend, I saw these conversations continue and anxious energy replaced by relational energy. What surprised me was that I also heard about conversations between people that helped bring clarity to some lingering interpersonal challenges; apologies made with sincerity and vulnerability; the emerging recognition that being in better relationship with each other and the world is what we are really seeking. In a whole new way, I saw us resisting the dominant idea of “power over” and discovering the untapped strength of “power with.”

This, I have come to believe, is the future of the church. A lot of the work of Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear (our Minister for Church Vitality) has been pointing in this direction but the more and more we begin to live in to practicing what this might mean, the more I’m convinced this is key to living in to what God is calling us to become. Somewhere along the way, we began to lift up commitments to the institution of the church as the source of vitality as opposed to making our commitments to be in relationship with God, love, justice and each other as that source. There’s been more than one time when I’ve smacked myself on the forehead because as we’ve started to practice focusing on relationships as key it doesn’t feel as though this is a new thing as much as something we’d collectively forgotten. It’s something we know to do but not always something we know how to do.

The temptation of the Church is to become too self referential; our mission becomes our own perpetuation. We can become part shallow entities that insist on being served.  But by consciously and intentionally changing the focus of the church to serving God and God’s people through works of mercy, justice and compassion, something different happens. Churches can find new vitality as part of the larger God movement. Those involved in this work have the opportunity find meaning through service; faith grown in community; hope sustained by action; and relationships that nurture the soul of the world. We are called not to be inward facing, self-referential institutions but communities that turn ourselves inside out to serve God and God’s people.

In the coming months, we’re going to be focusing on this more and more as a conference and we need your help. To than end, I’d ask you to consider doing 5 things:

Make some time to sit down with a different person within your congregation you don’t know too well. Do this once a month for the next year. I know in small congregations this might seem like more of a challenge and there’s always more to know about each other. Try to know what is at the heart of their fears and motivations. What gets them out of bed in the morning or keeps them awake at night. Get to know those you share a congregation with and see what a difference this starts to make. Invite at least one of these folks to do the same.

Reach out to someone from another UCC congregation at least once this year and learn more about them and their church.

Attend at least two conference gatherings this year (a meeting, one of our gatherings, an installation, ordination, local church event, etc.) and have a conversation with a couple people there.

Please pray for this unfolding process with our collective life together in your private prayers and lift it up on your congregation’s prayers.

Encourage your church to increase their giving to the conference and denomination so that this work can be sustained. Personally, go to, click on the “Donate” button in the upper right hand corner and consider becoming a monthly giver to Friends of the Conference.

The future of the church is becoming clearer and it is rooted in things we know to do but don’t always know how to do. With God’s help and yours, I’m convinced we can get there.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

3/14/17 Tuesday Prayer

Inspired by John 4:5-42

Dear God:

“Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.”

Not reading. Not checking email. Not watching a video but...

Sitting. Resting.

There are so many ways we want to be more like Christ by doing more than we can but...

This we could do. This would be a good place to start.

Help us to be faithful in this way.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lent whispers.

I closed my eyes as she dipped her finger in the ash and oil and, as I felt the shape of the cross being drawn on my forehead, I relaxed.  It’s the same feeling every year for me. I relax. For at least a moment or two, I relax.

The temptation is to make Lent into some sort of meditation on failure and sin. I was having a quick conversation about my dirty forehead with a couple of folks. I’d moved beyond relaxing and was back into a rushing around mode. I made a sideways attempt at humor along the lines of “Yep, I’m a sinner” as I was walking away and, as I was walking away, one of the folks said something along the lines of “Not sin. Mortality.”

There is something about being reminded what we’re made of and what we return to that quiets all the internal and external voices that say we “should” do this or “must” do that.  This reminder of mortality isn’t a heavy voice of doom and gloom but a whisper in the ear that says, “Remember, beloved, you are mortal.” It’s such an easy thing to forget.

We seem to fluctuate further and further along a spectrum of with expecting everything from each other at one end and expecting nothing at the other. We shame those who fail to live up to the expectations that increase with each success and treat failure as the irredeemable, permanent condition of others. We make some into our own idealized or flawed image and praise or abandon them accordingly.

And then, along comes Lent who looks us in the eye, smiles and says, “How about you go ahead and set that all aside for, at least, awhile?”

We are human; nothing more, nothing less. We will not get everything done we AND do more than we knew we could. We let people down while doing our best AND help others out in ways that surprise us. We will be afraid AND we will show courage. We will get stuck AND know liberation. We will hurt people AND participate in healing. We can’t help it. Sure, there is a lot in our control but we are not gods. We are blessedly and painfully human.

Our churches don’t help escape this reality but are a reflection of it. In Mark, Jesus quotes scripture while purging the moneychangers out of the temple saying "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." Both are always in church and each of us brings it; all the sacred aspirations and the unholy temptations rolled into one place. Just as it should be.

Lent leans in and whispers, “You all need each other. You need God. You need honesty. You need forgiveness. You need accountability. You need support. You need love. And, beloved, none of this makes you needy. It makes you human. It makes you whole.”

Lean forward with that dirty, ashy forehead. God loves you. You are human and God loves you. You are mortal and God loves you. You are broken and God loves you. You are whole and God loves you. When you fail, God loves you. When you get up, God loves you. God sees you and sees beauty. God loves you.

A blessed, blessed Lent to you, God’s beloved...