Bears and Birds and Cooperative Ministry

Loneliness is a bear.

No one wants to feel unsupported, unheard, or unloved. You would think, in a world of so many new ways to connect, that loneliness would not be a problem.  

But Instagram, it turns out, is no answer to the human condition.

Churches—especially churches in rural communities—often experience their own kind of loneliness crisis.  Remembering days gone by, watching bright-eyed young people go off to new futures “across the bay,” faced with the challenges of reorienting old buildings for new ministries, it’s easy to feel the same sense of being disconnected and unsupported.

That’s why the recent Cooperative Parish Day of Discernment held in Richmond was such an inspiring opportunity to say, “Maybe we don’t have to be alone.”  Cooperative parishes are a unique structure within United Methodism—bringing together churches in new relationships that allow them to envision a new common ministry.

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The Rev. Woody Woodin at the Upper Sand Mountain CP Ministry Center

What does that look like? We saw a lot of models at last Saturday’s event.  On the Eastern Shore, five churches on the Accomack Cooperative Parish are beginning with worship and exploring cross-cultural ministry.  A Danville area teaching parish is pairing a seasoned elder with other ministers who are new to the process.  And on the top of a mountain in Alabama, 9 small churches are continuing a nearly 50-year-old ministry of service and outreach in the Upper Sand Mountain Cooperative Parish.

The Rev. Beth Crissman, a DS in the Western North Carolina Conference appearing by video, said that the most important question any new effort must ask is the WHY question.  To answer that she suggests asking:

“Would forming a cooperative parish here OPTIMIZE our calling and capacity to make disciples of Jesus Christ in our communities SO THAT we become instruments of compassion and justice in our communities?”  

I hope more congregations will begin to ask that question as they look around at their field of service and see that, although they may feel alone, there are other churches out there with the same desire to be about the mission of God.  And what might they do together?  

Because loneliness is a bear, but unity is a singing bird of a thing.

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Jeff Sessions and the Things Church Trials Can’t Do

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Photo by Hayne Palmour IV

Church trials don’t create community; they create tribes.  And that’s got me concerned for The United Methodist Church.

Some 640 United Methodists recently lodged a formal complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who is a United Methodist with membership in a Mobile, Alabama church.  Though it is almost so rare as to be unheard of, church trials for lay members  can happen for a range of offenses.  This complaint against Sessions alleges that his advocacy for and enforcement of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which has led to family separations at the border, constitutes immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the order and discipline” of the UMC [para. 2702.3, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016].

Those who brought the charges say they don’t really expect it to go to trial. The Book of Discipline outlines a process of just resolution that sees trials as a last resort. The Rev. David Wright, chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, told CNN:

“The goal is to hopefully get Attorney General Sessions to talk to his pastors and church leaders, bring his position in line with the church’s doctrines and social principles, and end the damage he is causing.”  

Church trials for lay members are extraordinary, but they have been used with increasing regularity for clergy members who have officiated at same-sex weddings, which is also a chargeable offense.  The trials have provided some level of accountability to The Book of Discipline, but they are expensive, divisive, and have had the effect of heightening tensions within the denomination over sexuality issues.

In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus provides a model for restoring relationship when an offense has caused injury.  It begins with a conversation.  “Point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” [NRSV]  It is only after these attempts at resolution that you institute a kind of separation.  As if to emphasize the importance of maintaining the bonds of Christian community, this passage is followed by a lesson on forgiveness.

What Jesus assumes is that there is a community holding together all the persons involved in the resolution.  When we use the media to shout at one another, even when it has the aim of beginning a Matthew 18 reconciliation, we are substituting a deeply flawed national mouthpiece for a church process that is too often atrophied and broken.  When we do so, we begin in a place where our moral objections can too easily be entwined with our partisan commitments.  And we invite the same behavior by those with differing partisan loyalties.

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photo by Heather Mount via Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong.  I feel like shouting, too.  There is injustice and injury that we should lift up, decry, and put our hands to ending.  Separating families is such a thing.

But there is injury in our churches and our communities that needs attention, too.  To have a “catholic spirit,” the openness of heart to fellow Christians to which John Wesley called his Methodists, requires that we tend to the essentials of our connection, that we are in close enough community that you might “provoke me to love and to good works,” that we attend to the means of grace.

A few days ago, the combination of local and national events prompted me to write a Letter to my Haitian Neighbor.  I was outraged, but looking for a way to ground that outrage in a larger picture than the one offered by the echo chambers of social media and cable news.  It seemed right that we bear witness to what is happening—to offer our hearts and our neighbors to God.

I don’t want to be distracted from that task by taking the Attorney General to church court.

The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, a friend and colleague, is pastor of Clarendon UMC in northern Virginia where Jeff Sessions often attends.  Last Sunday, in the wake of this story, she preached to a congregation that included Sessions’ wife, Mary.  In her sermon she said:

”I do have strong beliefs…I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”

It’s hard to hold that space in these times, but Wines does it because she was formed by a United Methodist tradition that has taken this as a core value.  It is a tradition that believes in seeing people, all people, as distorted by sin, redeemed by grace, and capable of sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s an understanding best learned in Christian community—not on CNN.

Trusting God (or What To Do When You’re Just Not Feeling It)

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photo by Paulo Nicolello via Unsplash

There are mornings when I’m just not feeling it.  During my prayer time, as I review the plan for the day, I say to God, (out loud sometimes), “Remind me again, why me?”

Those are the days I write it out.

I turn to a fresh page in my journal and continue the conversation.  For instance, here’s a recent entry with my annotations in italics:

First I write a question I have for God: What good do I have to offer this day?

My fierce clarity.  (I know!)  I never have fierce clarity.

My deep wisdom.  (I know!) The ‘I knows’ are me turning to a friend and saying “Can you believe God is saying this?”

My dedication to Christ’s Church.  (I know!)  This sounds a little more earnest than I usually am.

My savvy and unwillingness to put up with stuff. ( I know!) Again, not my usual M.O.

My subversive intentions.  Now that’s more like it.

The effect of all this is to claim the gifts that seem beyond me but that God can give.  And often does.

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit,” Jesus tells his followers in Mark 13:11 [NRSV].  Even when the one bringing you to trial is your own self-concern.

IMG_7791In a technology-driven world where there is always something for which there is an app and people are ever in search of a life hack to overcome a problem, it’s easy to see why God has become an after-thought.  If we don’t have the words, we’ve come to believe that it’s on us.  We just haven’t learned the right trick to get us through.

But Jesus knows the dangers of relying on our competence.  The words we need are not within us but given to us.  Our most effective practice is to trust that God will provide…that the Holy Spirit will speak.

When I visit churches I sometimes…no, often…get a whiff of anxious desperation in our worship and work.  Because the culture no longer credits the church with the prominence it once had, we have lost confidence in what we have to offer.  Is it really a killer product if nobody’s buying?  Maybe, we think, we should round off the rough edges and downplay the parts of the Christian message that don’t go down easy.  Maybe we should make Jesus more user-friendly.

Newspaper editors call it “burying the lede” when a writer tells an interesting story without highlighting the main point.  We’re in danger of burying the leader.  (BTW-It’s been tried before. #emptytomb)

What I pray for Sunday mornings and beyond is a warm and gracious invitation to a mystery that isn’t easy to understand or live into.  I pray for a community that isn’t worried about what it thinks it doesn’t have, but instead recognizes that it has all it needs in the gospel of Jesus.  God used Balaam’s donkey.  God can use our willing hands, too.

My other journal exercise on days when I’m not feeling it is to allow the negative voices in my head to have free reign.  I write down all the reasons why I don’t have any good to offer this day.  And then I write—all caps—LIES.  Because they are.  And I’m a savvy guy who has a God-given unwillingness not to put up with stuff like that.

The UMC & The Which Way Tree

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photo by Victor Zambrano via Unsplash

Preacher Dob, the Mexican horse thief, and two young teens were at a standstill.  They had lost the trail of the panther they were hunting, the one who had killed the girl’s mother and on whom she had sworn vengeance.  Zechariah, their panther dog, had gotten the worse of an encounter with a skunk, and was unlikely to pick up the scent again, smelling like he did.  Preacher Dob and the boy were ready to head back.  Mr. Pacheco, a good man despite the horse incident, and the girl wanted to push on down the canyon.

“We are at cross purposes here,” the preacher said.  “We have consulted the wishes of all, and fallen to disagreement, and found ourselves at an impasse.  There is but one amongst us who has not yet been called on nor heard from, and that is the Lord.  We would do well to call upon him.” (180)

I’ve got a full review of Elizabeth Crook’s great new novel of 1860s Texas, The Which Way Tree, coming soon, but this passage in particular struck me as a United Methodist who often feels that our denomination is stuck in a blind canyon at an impasse uncertain about what to do next.  As we hear about competing plans for unity and corresponding plans for exit, the elusive way forward on questions of human sexuality is contested and unclear.  We, too, have stopped to pray, including a new Phase III of the Praying Our Way Forward beginning June 3 in which the bishops have asked United Methodists to do a Wesley fast from Thursday night to Friday afternoon each week.

umc_prays_logo_final-690x380In his prayer, Preacher Dob, sets the question before the Lord completely, acknowledging the reasons each party believes as they do.  He also expresses his anxieties and fears and his ultimate trust in God.  In effect, it’s the method of our Commission on a Way Forward, which has done enduring work in helping us hear one another completely.  It’s a fine prayer, but Sam, the determined girl, thinks he says too much.  “You did not say it fair,” she says.  “Fair is to say Lord, let us know if we is to go on, or turn back.  Amen.” (181)

Sam, like many of us, just wants to know the bottom line.  So Preacher Dob amends his prayer.  “Lord, do show us the way,” he says.

Something happens in the night.  The lingering prayer, the campfire burning down to embers, the cold wind blowing through—they all have their effect.  Benjamin, Sam’s half-brother, thinks about going back home to a house where he and his sister have been trying to make it without parents:

“I felt the presence of winter coming, and possibly rain on the way, and a certain dread in my bones with the thought of long nights before me stoking the fire of our broken-down house, and watching the door, and listening to every snap of a twig beyond it, and wondering if the panther might be watching and waiting from the far side….it was a place I had already been in my life, and knew well, and I was not sure it was any more safe than where the canyon might take us.” (181-2)

I feel the same about the thought of going back to a UMC in which we are still “dealing with the panther at the door,” by which I mean not only the questions of human sexuality but the concept of a church that has lost its focus and its mission.  I dream, as our District Mission Plan says, of a place “where clergy, congregations, and communities are freed for edge-walking action on behalf of the gospel of Jesus.”  

Some will say we can’t do that unless “our side” prevails on the questions before us.  But I venture the radical notion that this may be a case where the substance matters less than the act of releasing the UMC to God’s future.  A UMC that goes “where the canyon might take us” will be transformed.

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

This does not absolve us of the hard work we should do to prepare for next February’s called General Conference where votes will be taken and decisions made.  I have no doubt there will be losses.  But those of us who have been formed by this expression of Christ’s church will retain the sensibilities and the gifts that the UMC has given us.  And we will have companions in those who have been on the journey with us.  When we wake up the day after General Conference, there will still be a story of God’s grace ahead of us.

How does the story end?  I’ll let you read the book to find that out.  But I will tell you that when the group awoke the next morning they made a startling discovery.  Mr. Pacheco discovered, in a half-eaten porcupine and a fresh pad track, that the panther had been watching them all night from a towering tree.

“The Lord has now spoke,” Preacher Dob said.  “He has told us to complete the journey.  He has reminded me that journeys will not often be of my choosing.  We stand in a crossways place, and he gave us a Which Way tree…He has shown us the way we are to go, and it is onward.” (183)

Lord, I pray for a Which Way tree.

Small Towns as Moral Communities: A Review of The Left Behind

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photo by Jamie Mink via Unsplash

Here’s the plot: a ragtag group of survivors suddenly discovers that people who have been a significant part of their lives have moved on leaving them in a desperate moral quandary as they try to piece together what has happened and work for a better future.  No, it’s not Tim LeHaye’s rapture series, Left Behind.  It’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, the latest book from Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton social scientist and Kansas native.

Wuthnow, like a lot of us in the aftermath of the 2016 election, has been taking a hard look at what’s happened in rural America.  I have lamented on this site about the easy and dangerous caricatures we fall into in trying to understand what’s happening in the Heartlands.  On the one hand, there is a tendency for bluer places to see all of red America as a reactionary landscape of racism, misogyny, and economic resentment.  On the other hand, rural America sometimes adopts a stereotyped vision of itself, hanging on to symbolic grievances (like the “War on Christmas”) and denying its own complexity.

Wuthnow tries to get under the surface of the Great Divide in this book by putting the focus on something larger than individual perspectives. 

“My argument,” he says, “is that understanding rural America requires seeing the place in which its residents live as moral communities…a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right things.” (4)

There’s a lot of familiar territory to be trod here.  Drawing on lots of research over the last 20 years, Wuthnow documents a familiar litany of rural challenges: population decline, a rural brain drain, teen pregnancy, drugs, lack of jobs, and the age-old friction between ‘born heres’ and ‘come heres.’  But he puts these perceived threats within a larger, unsettling framework. 

“Being part of a moral community, even when it sits lightly on people’s shoulders, means that sensing your community is declining and your young people are falling behind is a reflection in small measure on you…you are part of a failing community.” (78)

This almost imperceptible psychological burden can curdle into fear and anger—fear that a way of life is slipping away and anger that, as it does, it is “being discredited and attacked from the outside.” (79)  

 

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Even though Wuthnow talks to a lot of fearful and angry people in this book, his larger point is that the realities of rural life are not dependent on emotions.  There are systemic things eating away at old certainties, as well.  Small communities have depended on an ethos that believes that “when problems arise, we can fix them.”  The flotilla of small boat rescues after Hurricane Harvey last fall represents an ideal of what rural America believes about its potential.

Systemic problems are harder to pull out of the floodwaters, though.  Real change involves being part of regional, state, and federal organizations who bring resources, but also bureaucratic intricacies and arcane policies that don’t make sense.  When economic development happens in small towns, it often means that a new company comes in that needs expertise and skills that also have to come from elsewhere.  

“If rural people are susceptible to appeals that blame others—Washington, minorities, immigrants—for their problems, we must recognize clearly the psychological toll that seemingly insurmountable problems take on rural people themselves.” (91)

RELIGION AND CHURCHES IN RURAL AMERICA

Throughout the book, Wuthow notes the role that religion plays in rural life.  He sees the struggles churches are having.  Herb and Linda Tobias attend a Baptist church in the Midwest, but they “admit to being disgruntled because it’s been hard for their small community to attract good preachers and the one who came last year leaves them shaking their heads sometimes.” (92)  

colin-maynard-280700-unsplashDenominational churches struggle as well, although they play an interesting role in forcing some conversations that might not happen otherwise.  For instance, United Methodists and other mainline churches have asked their local congregations to discuss the issues of gay ordination for clergy and same-sex marriage.  “That meant people who quietly supported one side or the other had to make their positions known.” (134)  The result has been a few church splits while other congregations find ways to stay together despite disagreements.

“There’s a paradox in all this, though,” Wuthnow says.  “On the one hand, the conversations about gay rights and marriage equality wouldn’t have happened in rural communities…if there hadn’t been prompting from outside…On the other hand, it was precisely these outside promptings that rural communities disliked, just as they did Washington telling them to purchase healthcare and quit reading the Ten Commandments in school.” (135-36)

The Left Behind leaves the reader, (or at least this reader), longing for more.  Wuthnow makes the curious decision to turn his three principal research sites (small towns in the Midwest, New England, and the Deep South) into generic communities with names like Gulfdale and Fairfield.  The individual stories, which could have added more vivid interest, remain in the background, but perhaps that is best for a broad sociological look.  

The idea of small towns as moral communities is useful and helps keep the individual perspectives in context, but there is much more to be said about the ways the moral narratives that bind communities together are being manipulated by larger forces, like national media and institutions.  Wuthnow downplays the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild in her Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right because he feels it focused too narrowly on the Lake Charles, Louisiana area, (which, at 200,000 people, he feels is too large to be rural).  But Rochschild, as I noted in reviewing her book and in a subsequent interview, is mining a similar deep story that feels more visceral.

The land is crumbling in The Left Behind.  It’s all burning down in Hochschild’s book.

This is a good addition to the literature on rural America in the Age of the Great Divide.  It describes the landscape I know, which feels so distant from the shiny, globalized cities on the television screen.  Wuthnow sees that, while no one has been raptured, a whole lot of the country feels left behind.

**Princeton University Press provided me a copy of this book for review.

Two Big Reasons for Churches to Talk About Race

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Bishop Greg Palmer

These are dangerous days to talk about race.  If you try to raise the subject in polite company you’re likely to face some averted glances or rolling eyes.  In impolite company, well, who knows?  For some, talk of race is a pretext for a political agenda.  For others, the failure to talk about race is an admission of darker motives.

It’s time to talk, though, and I’d like to think the church is the best place for us to have this discussion.

Why?  First, because the Christian story has always been about overcoming the walls that divide us. 

Ruth, the Moabite woman, crosses into Israelite society and restores a family’s fortunes.  Jonah reluctantly brings good news to Ninevites.  Jesus sits with a Samaritan woman.  The Holy Spirit bursts into an international gathering on Pentecost and creates a new community.  Paul declares that “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2:14, CEB). 

We shouldn’t be afraid of an honest encounter about race.  When we confront it in Christ, it generally means good things are going to happen.

Secondly, the church is a place where we don’t have to pretend we’ve got it all together.  We are broken people living in a broken land.  A people of unclean lips.  That’s what Sin does to us.  And one of the manifestations of that Sin is Racism, the demon who haunts everything that happens in our scarred nation.

I’ll confess that I have avoided discussions of race for fear that I’ll do it wrong.  I’ll say the wrong thing.  Cause unintended hurt.  Expose myself as less than I want to be.  I don’t want to be racist.

But as a white man living in a society and a church still deformed by racial ideologies, I don’t have the luxury of being pristine.  Racism is in me.  Dealing with that means a lifelong confession, awareness, and commitment to crossing boundaries to begin relationships that can emerge despite the awkwardness of our limited vocabulary around race.

I’m writing this from a conference sponsored by the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion & Race called Facing the Future.  Clergy from around the country are here talking about their experiences in cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry settings.  The theme is “In the Midst of the Storm.”

There is realism and hope here:

 “The paradigm of white racism is already dead,” Bishop Greg Palmer said in the opening worship.  “But there are still a few minor rebellions against the reign of King Jesus.”  

That sums it up.  Racism doesn’t have a future because Christ has “broken down the barrier of hatred.”  But there are still a few minor rebellions and they still cause pain and real injury.  And some of those rebellions are within us.

I’m grateful for the steps that courageous lay and clergy folks on the Eastern Shore have taken to help us acknowledge what racism has done to us,  I’m grateful for the places on the Shore where clergy and churches are living out cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry.  And I know there is more to do.  Why shouldn’t it start in the church?

Chicken Houses and Change

animal-avian-beak-891223The old saw that says rural churches have a hard time with change may be getting tired.  All you have to do is look around those churches to see that a lot of things are already changing.  Maybe the question isn’t whether we will change, but how.

It seems like every other day now I see a new field being cleared here on the Shore to construct new houses.  No, it’s not a residential boom.  Much as we need some attention to our housing market, the new residents are of the feathered variety.  That’s new revenue for the county, but as I look at all these long, new buildings, each of which can probably house 20,000 birds, I wonder what the change will mean.  How will we manage the byproducts of such barns?  What’s the impact of having that many chickens in one place?

Change causes us to ask big questions and, even in the country, there are changes afoot.  When churches confront the questions change presents head-on, they may find an exciting new chapter ahead.

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Jacob Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, is built around the idea that churches thrive when they adapt to new conditions.  I’ve been returning to this book over the last few months and looking at it through the lens of rural churches.  I appreciate that Armstrong, who began a new church in the Nashville suburbs, recognizes that every group of people being asked to go somewhere new is going to have a “Back to Egypt Committee.”

“There are three things that the Back to Egypt Committee will say to you.  Be ready for them.

We won’t have all we need.

It was better back in Egypt.

You have to do it on your own.” (54)

As it turns out, each of these is a lie.  A good understanding of how God works will show that God will provide, that slavery to the past is not better than the journey to something new, and that God will give us partners for the journey.  What we need, Armstrong says, is to hear the same promise that God gave Joshua—be strong and courageous.

I appreciate the way that Armstrong recognizes the potentially helpful role of conflict in moving forward.  “Healthy conflict is actually a time saver,” he notes.  “As we take the courage to engage in healthy conflict we are actually more honest and open with our people and can more quickly move towards where God wants us to go.” (60)  For the many leaders who are averse to conflict, (and I count myself as one of them), it helps to realize this reality.

Ultimately, as with all things related to the church, it comes down to the mission.  If we are committed to being what God calls us to be and to doing what Christ called his Church to do, we will let that guide how we think about change.  Is our current practice hindering us from seeing what God is doing in the world? Can we cultivate meaningful relationships doing something new?

Can we handle change?  We will.  The question is how?

Why Churches Can’t Be Normal Again

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photo by J.D. Mason via Unsplash

Sometimes I have a fantasy that March 2019 will come, the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church designed to heal our rifts will have passed with a grand reaffirmation of our union, and we’ll all go back to normal.  That’s the funny thing about normal in the church, though—there’s no going back there.

Being the Church in the 21st century is going to involve some of the basics that have made us the Church through the previous centuries, but one of those basics is that the Church does not exist for itself but for God and for the new people God is welcoming in to the body of Christ.  And new people will need new spaces.

At least that’s the argument of Jacob Armstrong, the founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee.  In this continuing series where I dialogue with Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015], I have tried to think about the implications of the ideas here for rural communities like the Eastern Shore.  And much as I love the church as it was, which raised me, it’s hard to look at the changing world around us and argue with Armstrong’s thesis:

“A major adaptation is needed to reach people who have stopped feeling the need to come.  Almost everything will have to change. When worship, children’s ministry, youth ministry, and adult discipleship are all built around knowing what to do with the people when they get in the building, we can’t make incremental change here.  An adaptive change is required.” (28)

Easy to say for a guy who is starting a church without a building, (which is what Providence Church did), but that congregation eventually did move into its own space and now they faced a challenge—fighting the temptation to turn inward.  Armstrong proposes a question to counter that temptation: “There are many ways to leverage the land and the buildings you have to serve the community, but for a couple of events a year I suggest pretending like you don’t have those things.  How would you reach out and encounter new people if you did not have a building or land?” (30)

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_For Providence Church this meant holding a free cookout at the local trailer park, recognizing Armed Forces Day with a community event for military families, and showing up at public places and festivals.  Several churches on the Eastern Shore have tried similar things.  Franktown UMC has done that cookout in a local trailer park under a tent.  St. John’s took over the Pocomoke coffee house for a young adult night.  Grace Church went out on the Parksley square for a Halloween Trunk or Treat.  Drummondtown and Metropolitan churches marched together in Accomac on the Fourth of July and Trinity UMC has taken a decorated golf cart and a kazoo band into the Cape Charles parade.

Efforts like these not only help the community know about the churches, they also help the church see and get to know its mission field.  We break the pattern established by that unusual period that reached its peak in the 1950s and 60s when it was possible to build something and they would come.  What happens in our buildings is still vitally important to who we are, but the new people God desires to know about the good news of Jesus are now going to be “out there” for the most part.

I do recognize that the fantasy I have about “getting back to normal” is just that and that the future will have some discomforts as we do the work of adjusting, whatever the shape of our denominational home.  But I also get excited when I recognize that God’s Church does have a future and that the mission it has always had will not be changing.  In fact, I do believe that I am meeting that future in the faces of those who are searching for a home in God’s love.

Sure, there’s no going back.  But there are a lot of places yet to go!

How to Part Ways With Gadites: A Review of Olu Brown’s New Book

imgaeprofileWhen Olu Brown imagines the conversation between Moses and the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, it’s a poignant scene.  These two tribes, who had traveled through the wilderness on the promise of a new land, were stopping short of the goal, requesting to remain behind as Israel moved on across the Jordan.

“Moses looked at the two tribal leaders with tear-filled eyes and a scratchy throat and said, ‘Goodbye.’  In all the years of his leadership, this was one of the most trying farewells for him despite it being a simple combination of two words, good and bye.  The more he thought about these words individually, the more conflicted he became on the inside.  How can a ‘bye’ be good?” (40)

Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to a Promised Land [Abingdon, 2017] is the rare leadership book that deals with the pain of loss.  Olu Brown is, by all accounts, a transformational pastor, leading the fast-growing, multi-cultural, multi-campus Impact Church in Atlanta.  But Brown knows that every journey, even toward fantastic church growth, has its grief.

Numbers 32 is not well-trodden turf for leadership lessons.  Moses’s decision to let the Gadites and Reubenites go their own way seems like a minor chapter in the story of the Israelites.  But Brown discovered it in his devotional reading and builds a case for its usefulness to leaders.

thumbLeaders will face times when their focus will be tested by those who hear different dreams and promises.  They will have to choose to confront these competing visions and make tough decisions.  They will have to have difficult conversations, more and more as they get closer to the goal.  When others choose a different promise, leaders will have to let them leave.  And they will have to face the consequent void as a space with the potential for new life.

“For most of my vocational life,” Brown says, “I have described these places and spaces as being empty and powerless.  However, I now know that what I was actually experiencing was the divine transformative dynamic of being available.” (66)

Every seasoned leader knows that sometimes subtraction is addition.  Olu Brown plumbs the depth of this truism with new eyes and a creative appropriation of an old story.  This slim book is not a compendium of lists and ‘to do’s for anxious pastors seeking a promised land.   It is an honest reflection on what you lose and gain along the way.

How to Get Out of the Inner Circle: Ministry with the Poor

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photo by Tom Parsons via Unsplash

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” [Philippians 2:5-6, NRSV]  This, I believe, is one of the greatest biblical expressions of what ministry with the poor means.  In this passage, Paul gives us an image of God’s identification with humanity in all its limitations and also how God took on that humanity to restore it.

So if our ministry as Christians is to model Jesus’s, (“Let the same mind be in you…”), what does it say that we have so much difficulty getting beyond mere charity to really being with people in poverty?

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“In so many churches, what they call missions or working with the poor is simply donating,” United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter says in the book The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015]. (23)  If the measure of our ministry were clothes, kits, and shoeboxes, we’d have to say we’d arrived.  But most of us know what we really long for is relationship.

We are, as United Methodists say in their most ubiquitous confessional prayer, “a church that has not loved its neighbors and has not heard the cry of the needy.”  But Jacob Armstrong, the principal author of The New Adapters, feels this is “our greatest opportunity, because when we connect to the stated vision of Jesus, the church is unleashed…To do this we must move from inward-focused ministries and simply having ‘missions’ and ‘outreach’ as subsections to a church that sees all of its ministries as focusing on the poor, which includes everyone.” (15)

This is not a matter of glossing over the differences and affirming that “all lives matter.”  It’s a way of seeing with the eyes of God and knowing that God not only doesn’t shun our poverty, but enters into it because our poverty is the best we have to offer.  God sees us as we are and loves us all the more.

So Armstrong encourages churches to grasp the reality that “the gospel is not good news unless it is good news to the poor.” (15)  So how can we see the poor around us—in our neighborhood, in our community, in the world beyond?

rawpixel-com-384899In small churches, we often pride ourselves on the ‘family feel’ of our congregations.  Even churches despairing about declining attendance will often list their welcoming hospitality as one of their greatest strengths.  But how far does that perceived welcome extend beyond the doors?  When we are encountering people who find churches to be intimidating, are we able to see through their eyes?

Here’s an experiment: Find someone who doesn’t attend church and ask that person to talk about her/his experience of church.  No need to try to convince them to change in the moment.  Just listen and see if you can hear in their stories the deep desires of their hearts.  What would it take to touch those needs?  How are they the same as yours?

At the end of the experiment, you may have a glimpse of what church looks like through their eyes and that will be useful.  More useful may be the relationship you have started to build with someone who is, like you, looking for a place to belong.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.  Beyond donation, find connection.