Category Archives: spiritual discernment

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!

The People We Ought to Be

May 15 2013 002“Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in living lives of holiness and godliness, waiting and hastening the coming of the day of God…?   (II Peter 3:11-12)

I am struck, as I read this week’s Epistle reading from II Peter, by the repeated use of the word dissolved.  The writer speaks of the day of the Lord coming like a thief, in a dramatic transformation of the world.  Elements and even the heavens will be dissolved and set ablaze, and everything will melt with fire.

I can’t imagine living day to day with this harsh expectation!  Most of us take comfort in the assumption that the world will be basically the same tomorrow as it is today.  The early Christians, by contrast, looked forward to a cataclysmic change, because they believed it would be a change for the better.

As an interim minister, I’m learning to live in a world a bit more like theirs: one in which big change may happen at any moment.  Some time in the future,  a new pastor will be called, and the whole landscape of the church I serve will change.  But I don’t know when or how.  This is the nature of an interim “calling”.

I struggle with the fear and excitement that comes with knowing change is always in the wind.  How do we anticipate a future we don’t know?  How can I help my congregation plan and prepare for the unknown?  How do I maintain that professional, “non-anxious presence” in a setting where I am invested emotionally?  Do I look forward with hope, or with trepidation?

Here in II Peter, there are hints of what we can do with ourselves in an unsettled time, when we know changes are coming that we may not have much control over.  We may ask ourselves, as God asks us:

In this kind of time, what sort of people ought we to be?

This is a different question than: What should we do while we’re waiting? It is less about what we do and more about who we choose to be.

In both “waiting for” and “hastening” the day, we can consider which of our qualities and gifts are most needed by our faith families.  Patience. Alertness. Confidence in God’s care for us.  A sense of historical perspective.  Openness to surprises of the Holy Spirit.  A sense of humor.  Attention to acts of compassion.  You can think of others.

These are Advent qualities: characteristics that allow us to wait attentively for the new thing that God is doing.  We learn them from people like Mary, who offered herself, body and soul, as God’s handmaid.  Or Zechariah, who chose faithful listening when he was silenced.  Or the Magi, who walked without knowing who or what they were following through the dark.

I wish every church could learn to see every time as “interim time”.  Then maybe we would realize that change is constant, and we would start paying attention not just to what we should do, but to what God is doing, and what sort of people we ought to be in response to that.

 * Photo by the author

Who Is Your Hope?

bird 1Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
Emily Dickinson

 

Hope is the name of one of the waitresses at my favorite café.  She waits tables with eager determination and a bird-like alertness as she darts around the place making sure everyone is happy and well fed.  She always seems cheerful, with her sing-songy voice and a tendency to call everyone “Honey”.

But one day recently, she confided in me that one of her regulars had gotten the bad news: he has terminal cancer.  Every day, he comes in for breakfast, and now he needs more than just eggs and hash browns.  He needs a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on.

“I don’t know why they always find me,” Hope said that day.  “It must be my name.  I always attract people in desperate situations.”

I told her,  “It’s not your name.  It’s that you live up to your name.”

She went on to tell me that, when she’s not waiting tables at the café, she works in an oncology ward at the hospital.  I’m not sure what she does there, but she comes in contact with people who need more of what she represents: hope.  And she finds herself listening to their sad stories a lot.

“I’m going to have to lean on you a little,” she said to me that day.  And I was honored to think she trusted me as a pastor, instead of as just another plate of poached eggs.  She was telling me, in not so many words, that bearing another’s sorrow is a load, even when it’s not your load.  And that she was going to need a little help holding up for her loyal customer.

A few days later, I had a bad day at work.  And the next morning, I headed to the café, found my corner table and sat brooding for a long time.  Hope wasn’t there that day.  But there was another customer watching me nearby, a retired cop who is a regular like me.  Finally, he came over and sat down.

“You’re deep in thought today,” he said.  So I told him my story, and he listened.  And afterward, I felt lighter.

We are all of us here to hold each other up.  Sometimes that is all hope is: the kindness of a neighbor to get us through the rough parts of our lives.  But sometimes there is a bigger hope: a hope in something or Someone beyond  us that is urging us to move toward the better country.

If you are a leader in a struggling church, chances are you are one who has listened to some sad stories.  Where do you go when you need to tell your own stories?  Who do you lean on?  Who is your Hope?

*Photo by Don McCullough

Resurrection and Ralph

shapeshifterI ran into Ralph at the café yesterday. Ralph is a retired paper mill worker, a Vietnam vet and a self proclaimed “wise sage” who drives everyone in the café crazy with his incessant theological chatter.  He always interrupts my sermon preparation.  He wants to talk about God or Jesus or numerology or the chickens he’s raising.    But most times, I come away from a conversation with him having yielded a little jewel of insight.

This time it was a big one, though.  He helped me figure out the bodily resurrection.

“Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ, Ralph?” I asked him.

“I have to,” he said.  So I took this opportunity to ask something I could never ask in front of my parishioners.

“Okay, so, if Jesus rose physically from the dead, with his body, then where is his body now?”

Ralph didn’t skip a beat.  “It’s wherever He wants it to be.”

I pondered this.  I’m getting older, but I’m proud to say I’m still manufacturing new brain cells.  Did he mean Christ’s physical body moves around?  Travels the globe?  Changes form?

“Ooo…do you mean Jesus is like a shapeshifter?” I asked, popping out another brain cell or two.

“A what?” Ralph squished up his face.  Apparently, he hasn’t been reading the Twilight series.

“So, you’re saying Jesus’ body can inhabit your body?”

“Well, I certainly hope he does,” Ralph said.

“But…not all the time.  I mean, you’re not Jesus, Ralph.”

“No, that’s true.”

“But maybe now and then, Jesus might inhabit your body and I could get a little glimpse of him by looking at you, just for that split second.  Is that what you mean?”

Ralph was just now figuring out what he meant.

“So that explains why, sometimes, when you are with someone, you feel like  they’re channeling the Holy Spirit or something.  That’s Jesus deciding to put his body in someone else’s body, right?”

“That’s right,” Ralph smiled.

“I can buy that,” I said with satisfaction.  Finally, the bodily resurrection made a little sense!  There’s probably something deeply heretical about this idea, but if there is, I don’t care.   I like it.

And if Jesus can do shapeshifting with his body, I wonder what he can do with that body we call the Church!

*Artwork by Thomas O’Rourke, licensed by Creativecommons.org

 

 

 

The Task of the Storyteller

story teller dollI told a story in church last Sunday.  It was not just my story; it was a shared story from my family that had only been told quietly for a long time.  Maybe it was a confession.  After telling it I felt spent, as if something powerful had moved through me.

To be a storyteller is like having an electric current move through your body.  The story comes from somewhere–maybe you lived it, or maybe someone passed it to you–and it comes into your body and you ponder it in your heart for awhile, like Mary did.  And then one day, you tell it.  Not just for yourself, but for everyone who has a role in it.  And the telling has its own power, and the electric current moves through you and on to the hearer, and you as the story teller are changed, and the one who hears the story is changed, and even the story itself changes.

This is what it means to proclaim the Good News, to be a Christian witness, to testify to the stories that have changed us.

When I began interviewing people for my book “Toward the Better Country“, I was immediately struck by the responsibility of receiving people’s stories about  their struggles in declining churches.  I listened and recorded, wrote and edited, and the weight of those stories bore down on me.  I kept telling myself I had to finish the book on behalf of all those people who’s stories I had received.  I had promised them their stories would be told, so I could not let them get stuck inside me.

I noticed that, when people told me their stories, they were forming new meaning, and the stories changed.  The tellers listened to themselves and learned things.  And for me, listening and asking questions, I found myself  entering  the stories and becoming a part of them.

Once a story is shared, it can never be taken back.  Whatever power it has to transform the teller, the listener, or the story itself, just in the telling, that power is released like a chemical reaction.  From then on, the story does not really end.  It keeps being told, entering people’s hearts and waking them to new insights.

Last week, I attended a clergy event and ran into one of my interviewees who is a small church pastor.  I had a copy of my book with me, and I took it to him and opened it to a certain page and asked him to read it to himself.  There he found his own story, now part of a larger story of many churches that have languished, struggled, survived and been renewed by God’s hand.

It felt good to have kept my promise to him.

What story are you bearing the weight of?  Who will you tell it to?

*Storyteller doll by Helen Cordero, Cochito Pueblo

 

 

 

 

 

Toward the Better Country

June 2013 021Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection

by L. Gail Irwin

is now available from

Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers 

You can order your copy here,

Web price:$17.60 plus shipping

Copies are also available online at Amazon.com

Book Synopsis

The pews of many mainline churches are clearly not as full as they used to be.  While committed Christians are trying everything they can to keep their churches open and thriving, history has shown that no local church is meant to live forever in its current form.    Like people, churches are born, live and breathe, fulfill their missions, and pass away.  And recent history shows that more churches will be closing or re-shaping their ministry in the near future.

Toward the Better Country tells about the grief stages, discernment processes and creative options explored by lay leaders, pastors and regional leaders who have dealt with this sensitive time in the life cycle of a church.  These are woven in with the author’s own experience of leading a church through steep decline toward closure.

This resource, based on interviews with over thirty lay, clergy and judicatory leaders, will offer healthy, practical ways for congregations to move through the terrain of loss, discern God’s path for their future and pass on their legacies to emerging ministries.  It can be used for personal reflection, leadership training, or in discernment groups in local churches.  Scripture readings and questions for conversation are included at the end of each chapter, along with a list of additional resources for churches struggling with decline.

Chapter Titles:

1. Introduction

2. The Rise and Fall of Sacred Places

3. Expressions of Grief in the Faith Community

4. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Lay Leaders

5. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Pastors

6. Discerning the Failure to Thrive: Regional Pastors

7. Multiple Paths to the Future

8. A Tale of Two Closures

9. Laying the Foundation for Future Ministry

10. Seven Ways to Say Goodbye

11. New Wine for New Wineskins

Appendices, Additional Resources and Bibliography

Let’s Be Innocent

chasing happinessI have some fairly lofty visions of what the church can and should be.  But I’ve also learned that one reason churches decline or implode is when they become corrupted by human sin.  The church can become a magnet for selfish abuse of power, displaced anger, exclusion and bigotry, among other human vices.  Sometimes it feels like we are at war with powers and principalities even inside the places we call “sanctuary”.  How do we faithfully face those dark powers and conquer them with light?  I was thinking about that this week when a poem popped out.  Here it is:

Let’s Be Innocent

Let’s be innocent.

Let’s believe every forlorn excuse

told by every delusional traveler we meet on the road.

Let’s be silent

when the tyrant’s voice booms in the hall.

And when the hall is empty

let’s sing our hearts out until the walls fall down.

 

Let’s be Jesus and Gideon and Esther.

Let’s dress for success and risk everything for our people.

Let’s wage war by weeping over our broken city.

Let’s win the battle by confusing our enemies.

 

Let’s tell stories with our palms pressed to our hearts. 

Let’s wake up in a fog of doubt

and lie down to hopeful slumber.

Let’s give our full attention to the child

and the speckled feathers of the starling

and the stranger at the door.

 

Let’s give away our coats.

 

Let’s fiddle while Rome burns,

because Rome is not our home,

but music is.

 

Let’s pound on the door of the Kingdom

and not be afraid to enter

running barefoot,

headlong,

laughing

into the arms of God.

*Photo by Pieterjan Vandaele (licensed by Wikipedia Commons)