Category Archives: Reasons to stay open

Churches That Helped Make It Happen

More Light PresbyterianSince the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage last week, I’ve found myself reminiscing about one of my previous churches.

This was a church in which roughly half the active members were gay and lesbian Christians, many with partners and children.  Back in the 90’s, word had gotten out around town that this church was “welcoming” of all.  We were not a “More Light” church or an “Open and Affirming” church.  Our members merely wanted a safe place to worship  God, a place where being gay and being Christian didn’t have to collide with each other.

My tenure at that church fell during the years that openly gay Christians were not considered eligible for ordination as lay leaders or clergy in the Presbyterian Church.  And the Book of Order had no provisions for same sex marriage.

Coming from the UCC, I took vows to be loyal to Presbyterian polity, but from the beginning, I broke those vows, primarily by ordaining gay Christians as elders and deacons.  I justified this in my mind over and over again with this thought: We are breaking the rules now, but eventually, history will catch up with us. 

The PCUSA did eventually loosen its teaching regarding both ordination of gay Christians and same sex unions.  Ironically, that all happened after my little church closed its doors.

I often wondered if it was cowardly of us to be a “closeted” church.  Maybe if we had been more outspoken in the community about our character, we could have moved history along a little faster.  Other like-minded Christians might have found us and we would not have had to close our doors.

Well, that’s all water under the bridge now.  But I would like to think that the witness of our little fellowship did make its mark on the world. I believe we were a small piece of the story of the recent Supreme Court victory.  I know there have been many churches, large and small, where grace has reigned when it came to the inclusion of gay and lesbian families; where those families were honored as legitimate, long before the state and wider culture honored them.  While the Church as a whole has stood in the way of this victory, there are local churches (including two I’ve served) who have taught that all people have a right to form families.

Churches like ours contributed to the Supreme Court victory when we baptized the children of gay couples.

We contributed to this victory when we blessed partnerships, civil unions and the adoption of children by gay parents, expecting the same fidelity from these commitments that we expect from straight couples.

We contributed to this victory when we invited the partners of deceased members to sit in the “family pews” at funerals.

We contributed to this victory when we created space where gay couples could just hold hands.

Gay Christian families have existed for many years.  Every church that has welcomed them has contributed to this victory and you should take credit if you are from one of them.

This is not unlike what Paul and Peter were called to do when confronted with the challenge to include the Gentiles.

This is what it means to pay attention to what God is doing in the world and follow, even if it’s in a new direction. Eventually, maybe a very long time from now, others may follow, too.

 *Photograph by Alex McNeill, licensed by

A Perennial Passion

Ed's Perennial Mr. Baker  loved to teach Sunday School, and he did so for over twenty years with elementary children in one of my churches.  He also led adult studies and a book group, and studied different methods of faith formation in his free time.  He was a man with a passion for Christian education.

But a time came when his lifestyle changed.  He and his wife both retired and were ready for more travel and freedom. So, during my interim pastorate (a time when leadership roles often shift), he decided it was time to step away from teaching– at least, he said, for awhile.

That spring, the church gave each Sunday School teacher a flowering annual bedding plant, as is their tradition.  I had the children hand out plants to each teacher, but on a hunch, I prepared a different gift for Mr. Baker: a flowering perennial.  I explained to the congregation that, although Mr. Baker was stepping away from teaching, he was, at heart, a perennial teacher, and we might see him in the classroom again some day.

The following spring, after a year of travel and relaxation in retirement, Mr. Baker came to my office.  He wanted to talk about the next fall’s Sunday  School curriculum.  I was pleased that he was still interested in faith formation, but wondered what he was really there about.  Finally he confessed: “I miss teaching.  I want to come back.”

He reminded me about the perennial flower we had given him the year before, and told me it was in full bloom.  He even sent me this picture of it, above.  “Like my desire to continue teaching, that plant continues to thrive,” he said.

I have watched lay leaders step away from leadership after becoming tired or burned out.  But beside that challenge is the joy of watching new leaders, who are curious and adventurous, say “I can try that.”  In my former church, I watched volunteers who took over for Mr. Baker try their hand at teaching. It’s exciting to see people learn what they are capable of.  Not every experiment goes well, but we all learn by engaging with the church in new ways; including me!

In Mr. Baker’s case, his absence re-affirmed his perennial passion for teaching; it’s part of who he is and how he lives out his mission from God.

An interim period is a good time to try on a new role or encourage someone else to.  Sometimes, when you take a break from leadership, someone else gets a chance to step in.  Maybe you will find a role you like better than the one you’ve been filling for awhile.  Maybe you’ve never taken a leadership role and it’s time to try it.  Or maybe, like Mr. Baker, you will take a break and then come back to “bloom where you are planted!”


Asset Based Community Ministry

asset based organizingEvery now and then on the roller coaster of ministry, I read an article like this one and think, “Maybe there is hope for the church after all!” This article, from the wonderful Faith and Leadership website (Duke University) tells the story of a church that has found an entirely new way to be the church.  Instead of helping people by providing for their needs, this church is striving to build “social capital” by inviting people to identify their assets and network with others to make use of them.  “Roving listeners” walk the neighborhood seeking out the gifts people have to share through networking and community organizing.

It could be argued that this church is no longer doing what churches historically do (think: the Six Great Ends of the Church in Presbyterianism).  Not everyone goes there to worship God or study the bible.  Some are there to use the kitchen for catering start-ups! But the building still houses a worshiping community (in fact, a growing one), while generating community cohesion for people outside their membership.

In fact, it could also be argued that this church is doing what churches have always done: providing “glue” for the neighborhood; a place people come to stick together and strengthen their community life.

The church’s pastor was inspired by the concept of asset-based community organizing written about by John McKnight and his colleagues at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social policy.  McKnight’s book, “Building Communities from the Inside Out” is now twenty years old.  But the concept is still ground-breaking for churches.  McKnight says that positive change requires learning to see the community as a glass that is “half full” instead of “half empty”.  He writes:

If you’re a neighborhood organizer, you have to start with the belief that the people here have capacities and abilities and that if they come together in a community organization, they can be powerful.

His ideas, which have been applied to urban neighborhoods, could just as easily apply to us in our churches.  Instead of focusing on our problems and asking “SuperPastors” to fix them, a congregation might instead take an inventory of its spiritual and material assets, and then organize those into new ministry ventures.

It would be fun to team up with a church that was open to an approach like this.  Instead of talking about how to prop up what we’re already doing that doesn’t work very well, or obsessing about what we have lost, we could look around and ask, “What gifts has God put in this place?” and then…”What does God want us to do with those gifts?  Maybe it’s something different than what we are doing now!”

If you’ve ever tried something like this in a congregation, write to me about it!  As for me, I’ve ordered a copy of McKnight’s book.  Twenty years late!

Mission Trumps Size

St Mark's New Jersey

If you think you’re too small to have an effect, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”       (Bette Reese)

Many of us might assume that a church with only 32 members automatically qualifies as a “struggling church”, or even a dying church.  But in the case of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Keansburg, New Jersey, many of us would be wrong.

St. Mark’s housed a non-profit meal program out of their building for years, but when Hurricane Sandy hit, and the electricity went out, the program was unable to continue.  Members of St. Mark’s came down to the church after the disaster and found hungry people at their door.

At that moment, they demonstrated that they are a church with a vital mission.

They took the thawing food out of the church’s freezers and started cooking for anyone who showed up.  From there, a new meal program was born, as volunteers returned or showed up for the first time, to help feed their devastated community.  Today, they serve breakfast and lunch every day, about 5,000 meals a month.  A nurse, social worker and crisis counselor visit regularly.  And they also gather for weekly worship, healing services, and  monthly “Recovery Eucharist in the AA tradition”.

Most of St. Mark’s members are over the age of 70, but the congregation has welcomed in outside assistance, including other churches and Scouting groups, who come in to help them carry out their mission.

A few things worth noting in this story:

1) It reminds me that a disaster often gives us the urgent ability to respond to a crisis with compassion, and can become a wake up call about whatever true mission a church is called to carry out

2) A small group of people may not be able to do it all on their own, but with coordination and delegating, any size group can have a significant impact on the world.

3) A church full of 70-year-olds can be a vital church!  And with the changing demographics of our country, we are going to have to stop assuming that churches need big Sunday Schools and youth programs in order to be vital.  Vitality is not limited by age or size, but only by our ability to respond creatively to what the Holy Spirit is doing around us.

Here’s another story about a church that found vitality and a new mission in the midst of a disaster.

The Church on Fire

Klondike Community Church

Klondike Community Church

Recently I visited a nearby country church with a tumultuous history.  Built in a burg called Klondike, it was originally a Catholic church.  In the 90’s, the building was hit by lightening.  The volunteer fire department bravely climbed up into the attic and put the fire out, at some risk to their own lives.  Repairs were made and the church went on.

But a few years later, in 2005, the Diocese closed the church, and its members migrated to another nearby parish.  The building sat empty for awhile until two women bought it and tried running a bakery out of the church kitchen.

When that tanked, a nearby family purchased it and decided they would form a new congregation in the building.  They hired a preacher, printed an article in the paper and invited the neighbors.  A few showed up.

But just as traffic began to pick up, another disaster hit: an arson who had started a series of fires in the area broke into the building and lit one in the chancel.  Once again the fire department was called.  The fire charred the walls of the sanctuary and rose up into the steeple, but the building was not lost.

Without enough insurance, but with determined owners and well wishing neighbors, money was raised and repair on the building was carried out by volunteers.  During the restoration, the little band met in an outdoor open shelter, which was cloaked in thick plastic during the winter months.

Today, the building looks beautiful, inside and out. My friend Michael is its current preacher.  A forty-something African-American pastor from Cleveland, Michael came to northern Wisconsin to work as a Christian radio announcer, and has now found himself moonlighting as the church’s spiritual leader.

The day I visited, there were about 25 in worship, despite the sub-zero temperatures outside.  The sanctuary was cheerfully adorned with Christmas poinsettias.  A keyboard player accompanied us on “Softly and Tenderly”.  Then she pulled out a guitar and led us in a cowboy version of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Michael, in his conversational style, preached to a room full of pink cheeks and white hair, wondering aloud what it would be like if white church leaders called up black church leaders to just talk about the racial tensions in Ferguson.  He called upon us to remember that Christ died “just for you”, and urged us, out of gratitude for our own salvation, to reach out in community toward others.

After worship, we gathered in the basement for coffee.  There, a church leader named Don told me the story of his church’s multiple encounters with disaster and closure.  The more he told, the more fervent he became in the telling.  It wasn’t religious fervor, exactly, but more like wonder at the persistence and hard work of so many people in the tiny Klondike community who have cared for their disaster-prone building.

Without a a denominational affiliation, a permanent pastor or even sturdy walls, this community is determined to preserve its spiritual gathering place.  Is it possible that something beyond human tenacity is at work here?

I have written previously about resilience in churches.  Sometimes resilience is the result of adaptation and flexibility, and sometimes it comes from sheer stubbornness.   But there may be churches that are resilient because they are just on fire with the Holy Spirit.

Partners in Sacred Place Sharing

SOAR Powerkids

SOAR Powerkids

Recently, my church made a connection with an after school program for kids.  They needed a large room for martial arts classes after they lost their space at a nearby school.  They found our building, with its large hall and polished wood floor, and asked if they could rent the space from us for a small fee.  After checking out the insurance arrangements and how furniture would be moved before and after the program, an agreement was reached, and now, two afternoons a week, the upstairs is full of kids kicking and punching the air, testing each others’ strength,planning community service projects and, most remarkable, listening quietly and respectfully to their leader, a female martial arts expert.

The program not only teaches martial arts, it also focuses on character development, bullying prevention and civic responsibility.  While it is not a faith based program, it is consistent with many of the core values we teach kids in our own youth programs.

Your church may be sharing its building with other community organizations: a Scout troupe, an AA meeting, or a yoga class, for example.  You might think of these other groups as “tenants” who help you pay the bills.  But it’s possible that they are co-workers alongside you in the building of God’s reign.

Partners for Sacred Places is an organization that provides resources to help churches team up with other organizations for the building of community life through “mission based space sharing”.

In this Youtube video, they explain how they are creating a network to match local arts and non-profit organizations with churches for space sharing that is not only mutually beneficial for each group, but also creates “social capital” in neighborhoods, helping them build their own cultural life using the “moral and physical” presence of church buildings.  The video points out many other reasons why sharing space is a good idea for your church AND your neighborhood’s vitality.

Check it out!




How Can We Keep From Singing?

Boston Harmony World Music Chorus

Boston Harmony World Music Chorus

No storm can shake my inmost calm,  while to that rock I’m clinging.                 It sounds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?                             (Folk hymn)                  

I started singing in church choirs when I was  a teenager.  There I learned to read music and find acceptance among the grown up singers.   It was my church’s choir director who helped me find my spiritual voice again after a car accident that fractured my larynx.  I went on to study vocal music, compose hymn lyrics and sing in choirs at my college, seminary and several churches over the years.

There is a special kind of relationship that forms among choir members.  Something about those rehearsals, with their jokes, irritations and prayer rituals, creates a spiritual bond that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

But my view of the traditional church choir has changed over the years.  One time, I watched a song leader, without any written words,  notes or accompaniment, teach a room full of people to sing a simple hymn in parts.  The effect was electrifying.  I have sung improvisational jazz in groups, never sure exactly what note might come out next, or who it will come from.  I have even been to a “tunnel hum”, standing shoulder to shoulder with wanna-be druids and aging hippies, humming placidly until we all found a common, harmonic drone.  I’ve learned there are a lot of different ways to make sound together, but what really makes it groove is when everyone is engaged in the making of it!

One of the changes we’re seeing in churches today is the decline of the church choir.  This article* documents how church choirs, including some of those large, contemporary ones, are on the wane.  Choral directors, pipe organs and sheet music are costly in a church that may not even have enough money to pay the pastor.

Since many people like me learned how to read music by singing hymns, we may be losing a vital place for music education, as well as the potential for those unique spiritual friendships built in the choir loft.

Some churches are holding fast to their choral traditions, and I am hopeful that, if they are flexible and resilient, people who love music will return to find the joy in group singing.  Other churches are expanding their idea of sacred singing to include choral flash mobs like this one, Taize worship, “threshold choirs” that sing to the terminally ill, or simply a renewed emphasis on robust congregational singing.

Without music, worship will lose its vitality and without that one place in society where people gather to sing, our communities will lose some of the glue that binds them together.

How does your church make music these days?  Are you listening to others make music, or are you finding a way to chime in?  Do you think sacred music is a luxury or a necessity?

*Thanks to Joe Duggan at Congregational Seasons for sharing this article!

P.S. Here’s a great movie to watch about the importance of singing together, and the bond it creates.

(Photo licensed by Creative Commons)