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How Congregations Are Funding Their Own Demise

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Yesterday I stumbled across the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s LinkedIn page. They have some job listings. Here they are:

ELCAJobs1

 

Notice something? Every job listing is about finding money.

 

I followed the link between every listing that says “See more jobs.”

 

Here are the additional listings.

ELCAJobs2

 

Most of these jobs have something to do with fund-raising or asset management.

 

The Congregational Offering Plate Has Competition

If you don’t believe the Church is a business, think again. Offerings can no longer support the top-heavy structure created in better days.  The Church is looking for talent that brings in money. Where do you think they will find it? Where do you think they will spend it?

 

The national and regional offices, struggling to survive, are creating development offices that bypass congregations and go directly to individuals. These individuals are most likely your most affluent members. The best potential donors are your congregation’s aging membership in need of estate planning.

 

Congregational money sent to the regional and national offices fund these development efforts.

 

Can your congregation compete with well-paid, high-level professionals? Your teachings about stewardship may be feeding into the message of these development offices.

 

Many of today’s churches are living on endowment funds contributed by members decades ago. Congregations, beware. Others in the Church have eyes on your future funding.

 

It gets even more complicated. In addition to the regional and national offices, affiliated church agencies also staff development offices. They have some independence but are also funded with congregational contributions. These include charities like relief agencies, seminaries, schools, homes for the aging, local agencies, and camps. Some church-related agencies have shadow for-profit corporations, less affiliated with the Church, that can attract grant giving and work with government programs.

 

That’s a lot of competition looking for the biggest slice possible from the same pie!

 

The Last Left Standing

As local, regional and national bodies all struggle, the Church must consider the question: Which entity should be the last standing? As decline continues, should the national church disband first or the regional body? Should they both work to get the resources from their member churches until there are only ten large congregations in each synod. (The larger the congregation the less need for synod assistance.) Should the agencies slowly forgo church affiliation (as many already have) and join the plethora of nonprofits, each with an important mission, that also court congregational members for contributions and estate planning.

 

This is a problem that the Church does not discuss because everyone’s status in the Church is at stake. A lot of church jobs rely on the success of development offices. In the end, the congregations, the lowest on the Church organizational totem pole (but the foundation of all funding), no longer matter. The Church as a whole looks the other way as regional bodies find ways to close churches in ways that make sure the congregation’s assets go to them. This has been going on for a while. But now, the tactic is to reach your members well in advance of them leaving their estates to the local congregation.

 

Congregations are funding their own demise. The Church is in the Colosseum — and we’ve been feeding the lions.

 

Important point: Church-related organizations are not inherently bad for looking for more funding. Everyone needs money. However, as each church-sponsored entity becomes self-focused in building its own funding base, there is less concern of how their success is impacting sponsoring congregations. The success of one agency, or the regional and national bodies means less money is available for the congregations, who are still expected to send funds their way via the offering plate. This is particularly unfair with Church social service agencies, many of whom have positioned themselves to benefit from government funding—a pie that most congregations assume they cannot tap. Objections that efforts in that direction sidetrack the prime objective of Christian community are legitimate. The proof is in what has become of church agencies who took this track 30 or more years ago. Lutheran colleges/universities have little connection with Lutheranism today. Lutheran social services take care to avoid displaying Christian connections. When our congregation rented space to a Lutheran agency for a day school, they turned around the Christian images hanging on our walls.

How Failing to Embrace Technology Is Dooming the Church

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This post will look at how the role of pastor must change. The basic job description (much of it still important) falls short of the skills that most churches desperately need. Today’s Church serves a different world.

 

I have some fear that the points I am about to make might be read as unfairly critical of the Church and clergy. That’s not the intention. Clergy are important. So is the Church.

 

Clergy work in relative isolation and with a sense that they have no competition. They can deflect issues. Decline is the laity’s fault. It’s demographics. It’s cultural. It’s society. Real factors—but factors that can be addressed. Failure to do so has created dire problems.

 

The world has changed dramatically in the 28 years which constitute the entire life of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As they worked to establish an identity based on the past, the past disappeared in the rear view mirror. The desktop computer was entering the workplace as church leaders signed the agreements with old-fashioned pens. But Lutherans are not alone. Most mainline denominations have held back to the point of endangering their survival.

 

Churches, too, sense that they have no competition. They don’t have to change. They are wrong. Churches compete with one another and with every other nonprofit that courts our members and potential members for support. We also compete with the government who levies taxes that impact church giving.

 

We cannot compete without using the internet.

 

Changing Expectations

Job descriptions of most professions changed dramatically in the last 20 years as technology became widespread. Clergy job descriptions remain much the same. Integrating technology into ministry has not been a priority.

 

This becomes increasingly frustrating to laity. We sense that each year of no progress just makes rejoining the world that much harder.

 

If clergy and laity explored this together, clergy would find that parishioners understand the challenges. We are experienced.

A Look at How the Internet Has Changed One Profession

I’ve worked in graphic design for 35 years and in related fields for a few more. Graphic design involves communicating with words and images. My first employer in 1975 was still using hot type. That’s individual letters cast in metal and positioned in mirror image by hand before being inked and pressed to paper. Picture Ben Franklin setting Poor Richard’s Almanac. Same process, fancier machines.

 

I was progressive. I learned cold type—type set in a photographic process. I marked up manuscripts and sent them to a typesetter. I pasted the typeset galleys on boards with hot wax. These were then sent to printers who took photos and burned plates that were attached to printing presses. The process required multiple skills. At least ten people were involved in getting the simplest publication printed. Writer, editor, typesetter, proofer, designer, dark room staff, film strippers, press operators, binders and distributors.

 

All of these tasks would soon be the job description of one person.

 

Enter the desktop computer.

 

Again, I was progressive. I learned computers while many old-school graphic designers took early retirement or changed careers.

 

But things were only starting to change.

 

Another ten years passed. The desktop computer led to the internet and instant connectivity. Online communication soon outpaced print.

 

Things continue to change.

 

Today’s typical “graphic designer” job description demands skills that have nothing to do with yesterday’s job description. We are now expected to know marketing, a half dozen computer coding protocols and sales. Video and animation helpful but not required.

 

Ditto for most professions. Education, medical professions, law enforcement, business management—you name it, the professionals in these fields adapted technology to their work—or they found new work.

 

The Pastoral Job Description

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This recent study reveals the slow progress church leaders have made in the last 15 years in adopting technology.

Similar changes should have been taking place in the world of Church. Instead, the Church became an escape. Seminaries began attracting second career students who may not have liked the technology changes in their first career choices. Fewer young people considered church careers. The pulpit has greyed faster than the congregations!

 

Today, the Church needs to reach people that know little about the good old days of Christianity in America. This frustrates lay leaders. We sense that the Church is distancing itself from the world we live in.

 

For a while congregations could float on endowments. Time is running out.

 

To expect congregations to invest all their resources in one person with an outdated job description is worse than poor stewardship—it is guaranteeing failure.

 

Pastors need to embrace technology. They must spend time each week reaching the unchurched online. The 20-minute Sunday sermon is less important. Pastors need to attract and inspire using FaceBook and Twitter. They must create email lists addressing diverse interests. They must write email engagement sequences to introduce the Church to those who will not come to church until they know more about us from online interaction. They must find ways to connect and collaborate with other organizations in the neighborhood. They must explore alternative funding initiatives and expand the geographical borders of their congregation and find they will have to cooperate with other nearby churches. All possible via technology.

 

The Plight of Most Congregations

Congregations have little choice but to choose from the existing stable of denominational pastors, whether or not they can use modern tools.

 

Congregations are offered pastors who expect a secretary to do the typing and see a  monthly newsletter as effective communication. They still wait for “seekers” to come to them on Sunday morning.

 

As statistics decline, denominational leadership sighs and mutters “demographics.” Pulpits are filled, using up resources, while neighborhood congregations are left to die as if this is the natural progression of the Church. It’s not—or at least it wasn’t until the modern era.

Return to a Biblical Mission Plan

It is time to return to a biblical mission plan—meet people where they are.

 


RECENT STATISTIC: The average FaceBook user spends 50 minutes each day on FaceBook. An increase of ten minutes per day from last year.


 

It will change the nature of Church. It will redefine job descriptions and the meaning of community. It will open doors that have been shut to Christians They were never locked. Christians just didn’t bother opening them.

 

 

It will force change that is long overdue. Nobody is picking on anyone. It is just how things have to be.

 

The next post will illustrate why this must happen at the parish level. Here’s a hint at why:  Local parishes are unwittingly funding their own demise.

Challenges for Online Thought Leadership in the Church

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It isn’t easy following online Christian forums. Carefully crafted blog posts can quickly be reduced to babble when the comments begin.

 

A few posts ago, I addressed some issues raised online by a blogger associated with Christianity Today. I wrote the post on the 2×2 platform because the Christianity Today platform requires either subscription or registration to comment on the site. Multiple attempts to register failed.

 

I have significant experience with and therefore, I hope, something worth saying. In order to join the conversation, I had to address the topic on my own platform. A decade ago this would not have been possible. Pronouncements from church leaders could go unchallenged. Challenge will be a characteristic of the surviving Church. It may take some getting used to.

 

The dechurched are an important topic. The dechurched outnumber the churched.

 

Today I revisited the post I referenced a few posts ago and read the thread of comments that I could not join. I would have been surprised at the forum’s caustic tone if I hadn’t already noticed the tendency of religion blogs to get nasty quickly.

 

As one commenter noted, a nerve was hit. But the commenters took off in unexpected directions effectively derailing the topic.

 

How did this happen?

 

There was no agreement on the premise of the blogger’s topic. Readers were defining the key topic (the dechurched) differently.

 

Lesson to be learned: lay the groundwork for the discussion carefully.

Why does the Church have problems communicating on the web?

 

There are bigger lessons to be learned. Communicating on the web is different from the customary communication channels familiar to church people.

 

The Church is accustomed to operating in its own world. Dialog is characteristically peer-to-peer or pastor-to-parishioner. Some clergy rise to a level of respect that gives them extraordinary authority. Their words carry influence.

 

Laity, on the other hand, have a difficult time influencing. Call it the stained glass ceiling. All of this is normal in Christianity. It’s how things have been for centuries.

 

The Wild Wild Web lets everyone in. The potential for evangelism is magnified infinitely. However, it calls for new communication skills. Online religious writers must nurture the dialog. Less preaching. More teaching and listening.

 

Bloggers must recognize that everyone can access and read their posts. You may intend to reach clergy about parish problems. You may think that your audience has basic agreement. But on the web, your audience is much wider. You will be reaching clergy with diverse backgrounds. And another thing . . . When you take the discussion online, your parishioners can find the discussions. Write and engage accordingly. This is a good thing. We can learn a great deal from one another.

 

Lesson to be learned: Write as if your post is being read by a diverse audience—including the people who populate the back pew on Sunday morning.

Why are church bloggers so touchy?

 

For the first time, the laity have the ability to participate and initiate church dialog. They have been excluded from church dialog for a very long time.  Perhaps clergy have some unwritten protocols for discussion. Laity will be unfamiliar with any such protocols. Laity will use the protocols from their experience, which have been established with longer experience with the web.

 

Let’s look at how this well-intended post got derailed.

 

The post was about ministering to the dechurched. The commenters couldn’t agree on what dechurched means.

The writer offered a definition.

By “dechurched” I mean people who were at some point either briefly or for a long time involved in a local church, but have not been active for several years.

 

Seems specific, but there is room for interpretation from readers who aren’t on the same page.

I read this from my experience. I imagined people who had been seriously hurt by their involvement in church—not just those who drifted.

Other commenters determined that the dechurched were — are you ready for this — Democrats. In the midst of a hotly contested presidential campaign, they saw political implications where none were intended. They saw the dechurched as actively in opposition to the Church of their experience.

In short, some writers saw dechurched as instigators while others saw the dechurched as victims.

 

The editor considered some of the comments to be grossly off topic and an abuse of the platform. The commenters thought they were on topic—or at least, in their experience, an extension of the topic. In the absence of a well-defined common ground, there is ample room on both sides for misunderstanding.

 

His only remedy was to threaten to block their participation.

 

The discussion quickly became defensive and smart-penned — opening the door for more misunderstanding. All this on a topic that was exploring divisiveness in the Church.

 

Here’s where the Church can learn from earlier adopters of the internet.

 

The online community calls persistently nasty commenters “trolls.” This view is dangerous in church dialog—especially on a topic that by nature is addressing division. Every dissenting comment should not be categorized as coming from a troll. Some may be the very dechurched people you hope to reach.

 

Dissent must be allowed. There must be a way of welcoming dissent while keeping the dialog helpful and civil.

 

The blogger/editor can set the tone. If the editor responds with sarcasm (difficult to interpret in writing), it will provoke.

 

Best Practices in Community Management

Here are some best practices in the business world for encouraging multi-sided dialog.

 

  1. Keep the community rules simple. This blog has a community guide that is six pages long. That’s long enough to be ambiguous even if participants take the time to read it.
  2. The editor or moderator should address offensive commenters offline. Public whippings discourage diverse contributions. Privately, the commenter and editor might find there is a misunderstanding—maybe even common ground.
  3. Check ego. Assume commenters have strong opinions for good reasons and are not attacking the editor’s words as vindictive sport.
  4. As author or editor set the tone.  Assume the writer’s best intentions. Avoid sarcasm, which is difficult to interpret in writing.
  5. Be courteous to all. Lecturing some commenters while stroking those who applaud your view is creating a class system. Both should be done offline.
  6. Online religious bloggers should resist the temptation to censor—for their own sake. The unhappy serve a purpose in helping us define mission. Remember, many people have been excluded in church dialog for a very long time. Their venting may feed your future content. Officially censoring their view is reinforcing the hurt.

 

While the Church needs to develop best online practices, there is danger. If the protocols return us to the controlled forums that have defined the Church for centuries, the Church will lose the advantages of the web.

 

It doesn’t feel good to have your online arguments torn apart by commenters. But applause from the choir is not why thought leaders blog, is it?

What Is the True Church?

shutterstock_177970469The True Church. This phrase is a regular feature of church banter. Recently, I’ve read it in contexts that slough off problems within the Church. But that’s not the True Church that did that horrible thing. I can also recall hearing the term used by Church hierarchy, making claims to their particular brand of Christian doctrine and practice.

 

Problems with definitions in the Church are nothing new. Throughout Christian history whenever there is any measure of conflict, sides are drawn and both sides make claims to be The True Church. King Henry VIII started his own True Church when he didn’t care for the policies of the existing True Church. But he wasn’t the first—nor the last. You’d have to go back to the earliest days of Christianity to record the first claims of superiority or righteousness.

 

So, is the True Church the organization defined in the epistles? Is it the entity that currently holds power or can claim to be the biggest and richest? Is it the Church that projects a current popular viewpoint? Is it whatever church leaders—or dissenting members—want it to be?

 

This article from the New York Times gives pause. It tells the story of how church leaders in 1838 sold slaves to pay debts—not one or two slaves (not that the number makes a difference) but 272. They ignored the mandates of their hierarchy. They satisfied their consciences by demanding conditions—all of which were broken. They had only one reason. The True Church, as I’m sure they considered themselves, couldn’t pay its bills.

 

America was an attractive place for the religious of all sorts back in our founding days. This story dates to 1838. It fascinates because it weaves two incongruous threads in American history—the importance of religious freedom and the lack of freedom for a substantial part of the founding population. This event occurs 62 years after independence and 23 years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

 

It is a saga of struggle. Which is more important, founding ideals, biblical ideals, or economic survival? Today’s economically challenged churches face the similar choices.

 

Every writer knows: Character is revealed in the decisions made by the story’s cast. Apply this maxim to this slice of history. What does it say about the character of our nation and the character of the Church?

 

 

What decisions are being made by Church leaders today which might prove as embarrassing as this a few decades from now?

What to Do About the DeChurched

 

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In this post from a blog connected with Christianity Today, Rev. Ed Stetzer gives advice for reaching those disenfranchised from Church. He calls them the dechurched. They tend to call themselves “Dones” (as in they are done with it).

 

He divides the disenfranchised into two categories. There are those who just never quite fit in and then there are those who have either been directly hurt by the Church or who have witnessed an injustice within the Church. He calls the latter “collateral damage.”

 

The Church can be a hurtful place. Settler admits this. Dealing with the hurt has always been a problem. It gets in the way of bliss, a feeling many associate with church involvement.

 

26_1The Church has difficulty with empathy. The interests of the Church often come before the interests of the people the Church is supposed to care for. This shortcoming has the effect of magnifying hurt. Those who feel the effects of greed, power, selfishness, and other human frailties end up feeling expendable. While the Church talks about a God that sacrifices for the lost lamb, there is a growing number of lambs left caught in the briar on the edge of the cliff with no shepherd to reach out to them.

 

What can be done?

 

Stetzer’s first suggestion is to palm the responsibility for the disenfranchised off on another denomination. Maybe hurt Lutherans can hear the gospel spoken from Baptist pulpits. He calls it multiplicity—better than duplicity!.

 

This is a plan of avoidance. It won’t work. It just removes the problem from sight. When churches create hurt, they create a challenge for everyone in every denomination. Expecting others to clean up our messes is a bad idea. People belong to denominations for reasons with pretty strong roots. The hurt already feel rejected by people who are part of their personal life stories. What chance is there among strangers?

 

His second suggestion is more convoluted. He suggests giving permission to the aggrieved to express their pain. A tad condescending—especially if there is no plan to do anything but let them vent.

 

He talks about helping them get past the perception that true Christianity hurt them as if the hurt didn’t really happen or they are errant in identifying the source. True Christianity wouldn’t do some of the things churches do. Yet they happen—and fairly frequently. Time to admit: True Christianity must involve facing our shortcomings.

 

True Christianity is represented by people who come with true faults. True Christians can do bad things. That’s why we open our worship services with confession. What we find easy to confess to God in memorized language is far more difficult than coming up with the words to apologize to our neighbors.

 

A problem church leaders face is that the hurt is often very public. Solutions offered, when they are offered, are often very private. See me during office hours. 

 

Missing from his post are some important points.

 

Reconciliation is a major imperative for Christians. Reconciliation starts with accepting responsibility. “Yes, we see you are hurt. This should never have happened to you. We slipped up.”

 

This conversation should be followed quickly with some of the most powerful words: “I’m/We’re sorry. How can we help?” Sometimes that’s all the disenfranchised are seeking.

 

Reconciliation requires accountability and an action plan.

 

I’m not seeing this in today’s Church. I don’t see pastors standing up to those within the Church who overstep authority, who bypass Church law, and who justify wrong actions with one-sided rhetoric. I see pastors, who surely know better, making excuses that make those who are hurting feel even worse. I can only suspect that they want to remain in good graces with church authority—at least the earthly kind. They add to the damage. There is nothing more hurtful than a conditional apology. “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have . . . ” or “This is wrong, but there is nothing we can do.”

 

Here’s the thought process of those who have been hurt within the Church.

 

They believe in God and that the Church represents the godly. They pray to God for relief. When the Church turns its back on them they feel personally rejected by God. Why should they have to look for relief from strangers in unfamiliar denominations while the people they counted on to love them avoid unpleasantness? The disenfranchised feel rejected by the people who represent God. Why should they feel like they need permission to express their hurt? They will look to Scripture to find the Biblical response. They won’t find these remedies outlined. Of course, there are two sides to every issue, but in the Church, one side has a far more powerful voice. The legions of well-intended within the Church often never know about problems. There is little dialog. Breeding ground for discontent.

 Wouldn’t the True Church ache to know if there is something they can do to stop the pain?

The Church needs effective checks and balances. A private word of consolation from someone not directly involved and that will never reach the ears of the wrong-doers just continues the hurt. All too often such gestures are reported privately within church leadership and the complainer gets labeled by those who crave approval from those who created the hurt. The victim is further ostracized.

 

In fact, dechurching can be the desired outcome. One less thorn in the Church’s side. I heard one high-ranking church official offer to a hurting member no apology or discussion. “You need to move on.” All the responsibility for the problem was set squarely on the shoulders of the person with the least power.

 

If the Church believes its own message, it must accept responsibly for the disenfranchised. At the very least, open dialog.

 

Until the Church can truly accept responsibility, the numbers of dechurched will grow. They won’t mean to cause harm, but unaddressed hurts have a way of festering. They have families. Their families have friends. Friends have families. They have more friends. Now that’s collateral damage.

 

We are probably near the point where there are more hurting people shying away from Church than there are content and smiling Christians propping up the institution. We can keep on pretending fractiousness is the problem of the victims, but to what end?

 

The Roman Catholic Church spent years denying the pain of scandal and refusing to take responsibility. The image of the true Church was more important than the pain of the victims. Now they are seeing the only way out is to take responsibility. It is painful to be sure. But how many victims could have been saved with a more direct and timely response—by admitting the problems and treating the victims as children of God?

 

We need to learn from this.

Defining the Future Seminary

shutterstock_146283494Two seminaries are about to merge in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

 

The future of seminaries is a grim reflection of the state of the mainline Church.

 

The Lutheran Seminaries at Gettysburg and Philadelphia tried to merge when the ELCA was founded almost 30 years ago. The last few decades have been hard on seminaries as class sizes have shrunk. This may not be as problematic as it seems. The rate of church closures creates fewer positions for traditional pastoral service.

 

The temptation to merge for managerial benefits again arises. I hope it is not the typical mistake of failing to understand church math—where 1 + 1 often equals 0.

 

A few weeks ago, the Rev. Dr. David Lose, president of the Philadelphia Seminary, sent a letter asking for input on what the new seminary arrangement would look like. What do we expect from our seminaries?, the letter asks.

 

David and I come from the same ministerial heritage. We are cousins. That’s probably why I opened the letter from the seminary.

 

The request for input was a refreshing surprise—not the usual solicitation.

 

The agencies of the church are often isolated from the parishes that fund them. They have become better at defining their own needs then addressing the needs of the congregations. So I answered his request from the viewpoint of small churches.

 

Here’s what I suggested.
  1. Train seminarians to serve small congregations. The statistics show that as many as 90% of congregations are small (fewer than 250 members). The needs of small churches are different from medium or large congregations only in that we can’t afford more than one person to meet ministry challenges. It is always disturbing when I visit larger churches for worship and see as many as four full-time pastors working the chancel. Small churches are lucky to have a dedicated pastor for more than 20 hours of service a week. The chances of growth and success are practically nil. Yet most seminarians can look forward to serving small churches. Pastors need strategies specific to small church needs.
  2. Evangelism is a desperate need. That means pastors must be trained to work outside the pulpit. When small churches can call only part-time pastors, evangelism is rarely the priority. We need strategies to cross this hurdle.
  3. Train the laity. Frankly, with usually only part-time leadership, we laity usually hear that it is our job to attract members. If that is the case, we need the skills to succeed. We are not the same laity of 50 or 100 years ago. Most church members these days have college educations. Today’s job market increasingly requires graduate degrees. Many of these skills overlap pastoral skills. The internet makes theological information available to anyone. We no longer need pastors to educate us. The need is more to help us focus our skills, needs and insights as community.
  4. Develop an entrepreneurial mindset among clergy. It is foundational to evangelism. Congregations must create funding streams outside of offerings (my current project!). This is possible, but pastors need to create networks outside the Church, which leads to the next suggestion.
  5. Train pastors to interact in the world outside of Church. The Church tends to isolate itself in the community—an odd result of our nation’s founding tenet that the government cannot make laws affecting the church. The prohibition from working together with government and independent agencies is largely self-imposed. This has caused a loss of status for the Church in modern society. The early years of our nation found the Church at the forefront of service in society—creating schools, hospitals and service agencies. We have allowed the government and private non-profits to take over. They have easier access to public money. Church members who are inclined to lives of service find their efforts more effective and more valued outside of the Church. A loss for Christianity.
  6. Train pastors in church procedure. Congregations suffer when church procedure is not followed. Two of many examples: We had a pastor who insisted he could just add names to our membership roster without ever presenting the names to the congregation council as all constitutions state. Another pastor thought it was OK to call a second pastor with only the congregational council approval. Laity are always at a loss when poorly trained pastors take actions that are rightly challenged. Gossip takes over quickly. Most of it will spread without input from the congregation.
  7. Stress pastoring as much as theology. Train pastors to spend more time listening than preaching.
  8. Train pastors in modern ministry which is not likely to look much like ministry 50 years ago. They must deal with nonmembers as much as members if the Church is to grow.
  9. Every pastor must have internet skills to collaboratively develop the voice of the congregation (not their personal voice). No excuses! I suspect that the higher numbers of seminary candidates entering as second careers may be motivated by the desire to avoid the changes of the modern workplace. This is a loss to the Church that desperately needs to embrace modern technology for the sake of both mission and survival.

 

That’s the list I returned to the seminary, I would add the need to work directly with congregations to create recruitment opportunities.

 

What would you suggest?

To Be or Not to Be “Church”

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In this week’s Alban Weekly post, The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, asks a question without a subject or verb. “A Place at the Table?”

 

This is a forward-looking post that reveals an emerging vision — a vision that our little congregation has been living since, oddly enough, we were denied “a place at the table” within our own denomination.

 

She points to experiences where non-church entities demonstrate their willingness to work with the Church on projects that would benefit all. Collaboration.

 

Why is this a surprise?

 

The Church has trouble collaborating even within Church structure. Every congregation, church agency and institution is an island. All come together once a year to report to one another, but otherwise we all have independent leadership, missions and funding needs. We are more likely to find collaborative partners outside of church structure than we are within, where everyone looks out for their own mission interests.

 

The 21st century is incompatible with historic Church ways. The world around us changes faster than we can keep up. Where once we related only to family and community, we can now connect with people of similar interests all over the world.

 

We could spend time regretting the loss of a cozy, tightly defined past—or we can join the as yet to be defined future. Maybe we can help define it!

 

Fischbeck nails it:

We would need to explore how the structures of our own denominations and judicatories help and hinder us for such collaborations. We would need to examine our attitudes, our pride, our theology, about profit and non-profit, about collaborating with those who do not share our faith, about compromise. We would need to have conversations and prayer, discovering, cultivating, and assessing ways for the Church to be a part of such innovative conversations and solutions.

 

Imagine you are an ordinary good-hearted citizen—the type that self-describes as spiritual but not religious. You care about others. You want to good with your life. You want to be as effective as possible. What would lead you to choose to enlist in a church’s mission? We must be at the table to communicate how we care just as they do.

 

Secular philanthropy is better positioned to serve. It has a much bigger well to find funding and volunteers. That makes it harder for churches but not impossible.

 

Rising generations care about effect. They are less inclined to follow tradition for tradition’s sake. A lot of today’s Church dialogue is drowned out by the static of how things were and should be. Reality? That’s another story.

 

2×2 has experience. The last eight years have been difficult. We were getting along fine. Not without problems, but fine. We had a well-defined mission and action plan. With the lure of property and endowments up for grabs, church leaders sighed “We just don’t see how you can continue.”

 

They couldn’t see what we lay people were starting to see. Our future would be brighter if we started networking with community.

 

 

With doors locked and bank accounts frozen, we started to work with what we had—connections in the community. We expanded by using the internet. We discovered that people are willing to work with churches. We started working with government and local institutions. We found experts in various fields willing to donate time and talent.

 

Fischbeck’s ideas are our experience. If our little church can do this without any ordained leadership, imagine what churches with more than we have can do with networking (evangelism).

 

Time to be part of the world.

 

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the founding Vicar of The Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal Mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

 

“Follow Me” Means “Take A Chance”

 

Immigration made America great. How?

 

It might be in the genes. Scientists have identified an adventure gene. A gene that predisposes people to take risks. You could call it the “What if?” gene. (Its real name is DRD4.)

 

America was likely populated by people with that gene—whether it was Asians wondering what life might be like to wander east across the Bering, whites of various ethnicities heading west across the Atlantic, blacks arriving here not by choice but surviving to seek freedom, or today’s huddled masses lining the Rio Grande. A high percentage of the people who found their way here loaded our cultural gene pool with the “What if?” gene.

 

Here is a description of the What if? gene in a post written by Xiao.

 

The natural desire to explore is most intensely expressed in children, who aggressively form hypotheses in their minds and experiment. Can I place this block on another one without toppling over? Will I get the cookie if I cry or ask nicely? What happens if I hit the person who takes my toy, will they give my toy back or fight back? What if I hop over this fence I’m not suppose to; will I find new things to do? Such ruthlessly efficient hypothesis testing makes children natural adventurers.

And people who retain this adventurous trait in adulthood are the explorers. The ones who dare to venture into unchartered territories.

The ones who push human civilizations forward.

 

Christians seeking religious freedom were among the early immigration waves. They were the innovators and risk-takers in the Church at a time when it was risky to ask any questions.

 

Their dedication inappropriately labeled our country “a Christian nation.” We were a nation with a lot of Christians but never a Christian nation.

 

Lacking that gene leads to contentment—lives lived in the same town or job, among the same people. Perhaps the contented have their own gene—the rocking chair gene.

 

Without an influx of new blood, the percentages even out over time. The rocking chair gene grows and the What if? gene wanes.

 

 


Are we able to explore and take the risks that might move us in new directions? Or is the rocking chair gene moving us back and forth in the same place?


 

Christianity has prospered in America for a dozen or more generations. Is our gene pool now diluted? Does the population that comprises the Church have leaders with the risk-taking gene?

 


All Christian should ask these questions of ourselves. We should ask these questions before we call a pastor. We should ask again as we elect leaders. Will they forge a new direction? Will they create a lot of movement that gets us nowhere?

 

If we no longer have the risk-taking gene, we need to find new blood. Leaders who cannot accept risks are not leaders. They are rocking chair jockeys. The rocking chair gene would have kept Moses in Egypt. It would have kept the disciples in the Upper Room.

 

Jesus chose followers with the risk-taking gene. “Follow me. No questions.” Accepting the call, means accepting the journey. Sky-divers don’t dwell on the landing. They relish getting there.

Dignity—A Return to Camelot

or the foundation of Christian practice?

respect

I subscribe to two theaters. I pay no attention to what’s playing. I go, take my seat, and watch whatever they offer.

 

I’ll read any genre, liberally mixing it up.

 

This week I was surprised to find the same theme jumped out in the theater I attended and the book I read. The play was August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. For two and one half hours, the actors portrayed people seeking dignity.

 

I had no idea what The Rowan Tree was about when I downloaded it. I like trees. The cover grabbed my eye. It was free on Kindle Unlimited.

 

I didn’t realize what the book was about until the last quarter of the book. The author, Robert Fuller, a mathematician and former president of Oberlin College, wrote the book to present his vision for leadership based on honoring the dignity of others. Dignitarianism.

 

Dignity is something we sometimes impose on others as we gloat in victory. Victors strive to impose dignity on losers as they demonstrate superiority. The Rowan Tree asks what might result if we thought about dignity before we conquer and as we negotiate.

 

We know dignity is desirable. But still we seek to use it as condescending victors.

 

The beginning and middle of the book explore interesting characters struggling with the changing moral perceptions of the post-1990 era. At first, the reader might think the book is about interracial families—or maybe about changing marriage customs or various international exchanges—but each of these themes is interrelated. At the end of the book Fuller states his theories clearly. His preaching is more thought-provoking than offensive. Putting dignity first in political, domestic and international negotiations might change the world climate.

 

The characters in The Rowan Tree are remarkable in that they are all privileged and civilized. They are kind to one another as they seek to find themselves in a changing world. The story is set 25 years later than Two Trains Running and takes us into the future. The racial divides are less rigid. The characters make mistakes. They disappoint one another. They make peace with unusual grace. They manage to put others first. It’s hard to find an antagonist!

 

Both works point out that honoring dignity is the most profound change agent. In Two Trains Running characters in a black neighborhood diner in 1969 seek personal dignity—while walking all over other characters. Each has a different role in the community. The levels of indignity vary in the beginning of the play. The oppressed waitress senses the Civil Rights Movement means little to her. A mentally challenged man was taken advantage of ten years before and can’t let go. An ex-con wants to avoid returning to jail but can’t find work. The most successful character, the undertaker, insists on dignity as he buries the members of the declining neighborhood.

 

Dignity. What a concept to consider during this election year as our future world leaders try to gain power and influence by humiliating one another! If this is how we treat colleagues with similar goals, how do we negotiate with those with fundamentally different ideas?

 

Church has its politics too.

 

Combine the messages of Two Trains Running and The Rowan Tree. Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, getting our own way is part of church life.

 

We preach a gospel of love but we are tempted to first carefully calculate what’s in it for us. We think about how we can keep what we have and calculate how we can get more. We protect our own dignity over that of others. This is often disguised as stewardship, legalistic dogma, tradition, church order, respect, authority—all kinds of things.

 

It is part of the placement of pastors, the distribution of resources, and the closing of churches. The end is often decided before negotiations begin. Sometimes the negotiations never begin. Dignity, imposed more than practiced, is often nothing but legitimizing bullying tactics. The fate of the congregation and its members are collateral damage.

 

Yet, the ideas of dignatarianism are rooted in Christianity. The leper, the prostitute, the centurion, the king are all equal in Christ’s eye.

 

Something to think about.

 

Afterthought: The rowan tree holds a special place in Celtic tradition. 

 

When we silence ourselves long enough to listen to the rowan speak, we hear her message: “look deeper, see through the object before your eyes and you will encounter visions into the worlds beyond the one you physically know.”

Can Small Churches Reach Youth?

youthPastor Andy Stanley, the faith leader of Atlanta’s North Point (mega) Church, made a big mistake.

 

He spoke out against two things—parents in small churches and small church ministries.

 

Here is the important thing. He is really, truly sorry. He made a heart-felt, complete apology that congregations rarely hear from leaders. He added no “buts.”

 

Enough said? Time to move on?

 

Before moving too fast, let’s look at what he claims were the roots of his comments. He and his church had just come from a successful youth retreat for middle school children. He was high from the experience and wishing every middle school child could have been part of the event. Stanley attacked parents not so much for attending small churches but for not giving their children the opportunity his church had just provided. His mistake was in thinking that the large church is the only environment that can serve this age group.

 

Small churches can serve youth. The problem is often we don’t. We don’t have the extra staff that are often dedicated to youth ministry. We struggle to find volunteers to lead energetic teens. But the potential is there. It is a matter of finding the way.

 

Middle school is a microcosm of life. A great deal of potential and dreams are bundled up in packages of hormones and insecurity. Some middle schoolers thrive in large groups. On the other hand, being part of a large group can torture other young teens. They can feel overshadowed by the emerging “A” personalities (who may be struggling with their own self-images). They can be bombarded by what they see as insurmountable shortcomings.

 

Again, Stanley has retracted his statement in full. He realizes that parents may know best. He realizes that small church ministries have value and good ideas and love their children. He points to the support money his congregation provides to other ministries. He even cites instances where his ministry borrowed ideas from small church ministries.

 

Small church ministries can provide opportunities for children. Young people can learn to serve, can be individually mentored, can develop faith and talents when they aren’t just another middle school kid. Small churches can do a great job at this.

 

Unfortunately, in many cases, small churches fail to reach out to this age group. They have programs for the very young. Volunteers to lead programs drop out when children hit — middle school! These days this can be as young as ten.

 

Before we totally dismiss everything Pastor Stanley foolishly said, let’s look at why and recognize the little bits of truth that prompted it.

 

Stanley said his comments were about caring for the next generation. His concerns are well-founded.

 

Small churches need to address youth—for the children’s sake and for the longevity of their own faith communities.

 

I would have no trouble making a list of why young people can and do thrive in small church ministries, but I’ve visited many congregations (some even fairly large) that have a huge age gap in attendance between the ages of ten and fifty! That is a frustrating cause of concern.

 

Let’s hope Pastor Stanley’s gaffe is a prompt for something good.