Category Archives: Staffing and leadership

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!”


The Outsourced Church

With all the struggling churches out there, it is likely that some of you are asking yourselves: how much can we cut from our budget in staff expenses, and still be seen as a respectable church?

For example, what happens if your church is unable to afford a preacher? Can you still worship together?  Well, you might turn to “A Sermon for Every Sunday”, a lectionary based resource that offers videotaped sermons by the likes of Brian Blount and MaryAnn McKibben Dana, among others.  For $4.99 each, you can pop one of these babies in the DVD player and project a thoughtful, intelligent sermon drawn from the scriptures for the week.

Or what if your wonderful organist injures her foot?  (This has happened to me twice!).  Everyone knows how hard it is to find a good organist these days.  Well, search no more!  The UCC has in existence a collection of recorded organ accompaniments on CD, covering every hymn in the New Century Hymnal.  Any congregation with a decent sound system can sing hymns accompanied by a world class organist.

When it comes to governance, a lay Moderator runs the governing boards of UCC churches; no pastor needed!  In the Presbyterian Church (USA), a pastor is required to moderate a Session meeting.  But if there is a pastoral vacancy, provisions can be made for a pastor from another congregation to moderate a Session meeting.  In other words, you can “rent” a pastor to govern your Board.

Deacons may be trained to visit and serve communion to the home-bound.  Lay ministers can be licensed to baptize and bury the dead.  These people, while not ordained, may still have authentic spiritual gifts for ministry.

Of course, if you really need an ordained minister, anyone can get a certificate of ordination that authorizes them to perform weddings or other pastoral functions.  If Conan O’Brien can do it, you can too!

Staffing is often the biggest piece of a church’s budget, and many people assume the success of a church hinges on its having a qualified pastor.  Yet, we live in a world where MOOCS* are intruding on traditional education and knee replacements are being outsourced to India.  Churches I observe are moving from two pastors to one, from full time to half time, from ordained to licensed, and from Christian educators to volunteers, all in an effort to lower their costs.

This trend may be both perilous and full of potential.  Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness churches have functioned without paid clergy for many years, relying instead on lay leaders.  Eugene Peterson, in his latest book, The Pastor, tells of his church appointing a cadre of women who took turns volunteering in the church office (in the 70’s).    These models seem antiquated at a time when many households are chronically over-scheduled.  But I wonder if there is anything for us to learn from them.

Progressive Protestant churches want educated preachers and teachers, patient, mature youth leaders, qualified administrators, musicians and custodians.  But how do we attract these human resources if we can’t pay them very much or anything at all?  Should we be “outsourcing” our sermons?  Delegating more tasks to already exhausted volunteers?  Sharing staff with other churches?  Narrowing the range of ministries we provide? Asking professionals to work for free?

What do you think?

 * Massive Open Online Courses

Churches in Conversation

Fall 2014 003




In November, I was invited to meet with clergy and lay leaders in the Hudson River Presbytery in New York.  There, under the direction of Rev. Rhonda Kruse, their Connections and Change Presbyter, I had several occasions over two days to help foster conversation about creative responses to church decline.

The first was a shared Sunday worship service with three small churches who are located near each other but had never worshiped together before.  The church we met in–Bethlehem Presbyterian– was established in 1729 (see photo).  Talk about resilience!  With a combined choir to inspire us, four pastors led worship and gathered with members over coffee afterward.  The common refrain I heard was, “Maybe we should do this again!”

Later that afternoon, 70 people from around the Presbytery gathered to hear a summary of ideas from my book and talk among themselves about their own experiences of decline and revitalization.  It was a time to be honest about the struggles they were experiencing, and to recognize that they were not alone.  Presbytery staff were on hand to listen and respond to concerns, encouraging churches to consider options for revitalization, merger, or closure, depending on their circumstances.

On Monday morning, I was taken to the beautiful Stony Point Retreat Center, where the Presbytery Committee on Ministry was meeting.  Once again, I shared stories from the book and judicatory leaders clustered in small groups to talk about how to help struggling churches they are in contact with.

Over meals and on car rides, I listened to stories of churches facing incredible obstacles and still finding divine creativity in the thick of it!

At one point, I said to my gracious host, Rhonda: “I don’t feel I can do much for these leaders.  I’m just coming and going, but they are staying here to do the hard work.”  Her response encouraged me: “You’re helping them start the conversations they need to have.”

Since I started the book project, I have always believed that honest conversation, whether it includes lament, idea sharing, critique or celebration, is the best way to hitch our hearts to the Holy Spirit’s power to make all things new.  By listening and learning from each other and our neighborhoods, we recognize that God is already at work in us; we just need to catch onto what God is doing.

I appreciate the foresight the Hudson River Presbytery has had in helping their churches team up to converse about their future.  All our local churches are really Christ’s one Church, so why do we keep struggling alone?

If you are interested in having an honest conversation with other churches in your area about change, decline, and God’s new thing, and if you want help starting the conversation, contact me, and maybe we can make it happen.

Pressing Where It Hurts


I had a massage from an excellent massage therapist recently, and discovered my body is full of knots.  What was supposed to be a relaxing experience became a confrontation with unaddressed pain, as I discovered that I am in pretty bad shape.  Stress, age and poor posture are taking their toll.

“Your body is full of toxins,” the therapist said flatly.

What, like a skunk?  Or an industrial waterway?

Whenever she found a knotted up spot in my body, she came at it from the edge with her thumb and pressed gently down.  I flinched.  I yelled, “Ouch!”  I got tears in my eyes.  But I did not ask her to stop.  And she didn’t stop.  She never said “I’m sorry”.  My knots are not her fault, after all.  She just kept gently pressing in, hurting me in the kindest way.

Finally, between moans of pain, I said, “I wish I could do for my churches what you do for your clients.  You press down on the pain because you know that’s the only way they will heal, and you don’t stop, even when they yell at you.”

On hearing this, she didn’t laugh or make a remark.  She just kept pressing.  I was awed by her strength, both physical and emotional.

In pastoral work with struggling churches, I have tried to learn the hard lessons of pressing down on the pain: listening for the rough but loving judgments of God and interpreting them for congregations who feel stuck in ruts but have no real interest in changing their behavior.

Pressing on the pain might mean asking: “What mistakes did you make with your former pastors?” Or displaying the hard truth of their situation (“You will run out of financial reserves in X years”).  Or something like the confession I had to make to a lay leader once: “I don’t trust you…yet.”

I really hate this part of my job, and frankly I’m not good at it, either.  But speaking the truth in love is the leader’s job.  It’s our job when the truth to be told is part of a church’s healing and reconciliation, or when it’s needed to correct behavior that is leading a church away from God’s mission for them.

When the massage therapist was done with me, I felt relaxed and pliable for the first time in a while.

But that was two weeks ago.  Now I’m back to my old, toxic self.  In the dysfunctional body, things bounce back to default disease pretty fast.

The good news is, my massage therapist is coming tomorrow to press all my pain buttons again.   I know it will hurt.  And I know I’ll feel better when she’s done with me.

* Photo licensed by

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

Crushing the Butterfly

butterflyA friend I will call Jean came to a summer party at our farm recently.  Jean is an animal lover who   entertains raccoons,  squirrels, ravens and even bears in the woods near her home.  When they appear sick, she feeds them with syringes or takes them to the wildlife refuge.    All the neighbors know where to drop the stray cats.

But she surprised us the night of the party when she found a monarch butterfly and brought it to show us.  Apparently, it was injured and could no longer fly.  She held it gently in her palm while we beheld its stained-glass window wings. “So beautiful,” she said.  “but I’m going to have to crush it.  It’s been injured.  It can’t fly anymore.  It needs to be put out of its misery.”

Suddenly, before anyone could protest her assessment of the butterfly’s prospects, she placed it on the ground and stomped on it squarely with her foot.  Shudders and groans swept through the group surrounding her.  The action was so swift, so authoritative, so seemingly heartless, we were all speechless.

I have thought about that action again and again.  What kind of impulse drove her to it?

I believe it was love.

Most of us love animals because they entertain and amuse us.  We imagine that they exist for our pleasure.  But Jean’s action expressed a deeper love, a compassion for the butterfly itself, not for its elegance or the hopeful symbolism it offered her.  More important than its resplendent wings was its unseen soul, its anguish, however imperceptible, at being injured and unable to fulfill its truest calling.  She put herself in the position of the butterfly and did what she thought was best for it.

To Christians, the demise of a church is a tragedy.  We love our churches and all churches.   We love what they represent and the good they have done in every corner of our world.  When we see them shrinking and closing, we recoil.  We want to hold those colored windows in our palms and preserve them forever.

But those who truly love the Church know that it was made to fly by the power of the Holy Spirit.  And a dying church can be a place of spiritual injury, a cluster of injured souls straining to survive as a human institution instead of reaching for the sky as a creature of God.  The Church should not exist to avoid hurt feelings, to maintain friendships or to preserve historical character in the neighborhood.  The Church exists to make disciples, and when the disciples are at the end of their rope, tired and thirsty for spiritual nurture, maybe someone needs to put the institution out of its misery.

Nobody wants to be the one to crush the butterfly.  It makes you look heartless and cruel.  But there is a kind of love that knows when it’s time to do just that.

The butterfly, remember, is living its second life.  It has already experienced resurrection once, so it has no fear for its future beyond the grave.  Shouldn’t this also be true of the Church?


* Photograph by Estela Romero, licensed by Creative Commons.

A Favorable Review

book title coverI was honored to read a review of my book “Toward the Better Country” in “Preaching and Pondering”, a blog written by the the Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Church of New York State.  You can read it here.

I was especially pleased to read that Rev. Hugenot was compelled by the book to get in touch with his own grief about churches facing decline.  I think it’s healthy for judicatory leaders and pastors to stay self-aware about our emotions and assumptions regarding struggling churches and the impact we can have on them.

Thanks to Rev. Hugenot for sharing my book with others in his region!  If any of my readers would like to write a review of my book, favorable or not, you can post one on the page where my book is sold.