Category Archives: Uncategorized

Does Your Flock Need You?

Mr. Shiny and the Hens

Mr. Shiny and the Hens

Mr. Shiny, the rooster, and his harem of ten hens showed up in our yard last winter–the gift of a friend who could no longer care for them.  I was elated.  Every morning, I started my day taking care of someone who truly needed me.  I fed and watered the little flock, made sure they had their grit and corn, and celebrated the colorful eggs they laid for us.  They relied on me completely, and I loved that.

But then came the spring, and it was time to let them venture out of the coop to wander the yard scratching up grubs in the lawn.  I started each day like before,  slipping their feed into the pen for breakfast, and then let them loose to wander in the afternoon.

But as the weather warmed, their curiosity for exploring the world became more intense, and soon they were jumping out of the coop as soon as I opened it.

Suddenly, they didn’t need me anymore.

Eventually, I began letting them out of the pen first thing in the morning.  They fled joyfully.  They ate less and less poultry feed and started relying more on a natural diet of seeds and worms.  Their feathers became glossy and they laid more eggs, with deep orange, flavorful yolks.

They were happy.  But they didn’t need me anymore.

In May, the Pew Research report on the rise of the “Nones” came out and caused a stir among my clergy colleagues.  The report found that “the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years…Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. ” 

Some of these “Nones” still have a vague interest in spirituality, but are not choosing to feed that interest by attending church.  Many are completely disinterested.

I won’t add to the many commentaries on this new information, except to say that it is yet another blow to the egos of mainline clergy, who suspect that we may not be needed anymore.  Our institutional faith practices seem to be losing efficacy in ways that are now transparent and measurable.

As I eye up my flock of chickens, roaming freely and joyfully around the garden, choosing their own diet instead of relying on my manufactured Fleet Farm rations, it occurs to me that, in nature, the creature can be trusted to feed itself.  Is it possible that this is also true in the spiritual world?  Might our wayward flocks have the capacity to go searching for their own spiritual truths and practices, inhabiting a new religious landscape that fits this time in history?  Is it possible that they don’t need us clergy to spoon feed them theology and ritual anymore?

I don’t have the answer to that question.  If you do, feel free to share your thoughts!

Meanwhile, I’m going out to tuck the chickens in for the night.

Oh, didn’t I tell you?  Every night, after an afternoon of grazing, they turn in and roost in the little coop I provide for them.  Every night, I lock up the coop to keep the raccoon and the weasel at bay.

Maybe my flock still needs me after all.

Smoke and Ash

ash and childNot many kids came to our youth program on Ash Wednesday.  Some were scared away by the temperatures outside, which dipped below zero;  0thers by the serious evening worship service that would interrupt their usual scavenger hunts and Wallyball games.

But a few showed up for a promised opportunity to play with fire.

I taught them a little about what Lent means, and we each wrote on a piece of paper something we wanted to burn that was separating us from God, as a ritual to begin the season.  Then we went out to the church breezeway and crushed up last year’s palm branches.  We threw all the papers and palms into a big soup pot from the church kitchen and lit the whole mess on fire.  Smoke rose up in the frigid air and we stood around poking at the embers until the red light came out of them.  Then we lugged the pot upstairs to the kitchen, sifted the ashes down and sprayed a little Pam on them to make them sticky.

Who needs a priest when you have four middle schoolers to help prepare for Ash Wednesday?

That night, we went home not only with ash on our foreheads, but reeking of smoke.  Some grown-ups said the church smelled like their college dorm rooms.  Others were reminded of Boy Scout campfires.  I myself remembered the Orthodox churches I visited in Israel, their air so thick with the smell of candle wax and incense, you could hardly take a deep breath without choking on particulates.

Now my car smells like smoke, and my coat and mittens, too.  But I don’t care.  Whenever anything really important happens in your life, you come out the other side smelling different.  You smell like the hospital where you got your new heart, or the sterile nursery flowers laid on the coffin of a beloved.  You smell like the cologne your husband wore at the wedding or your baby’s milky breath. It only seems right that, when we burn something from the past that needs to be let go, the odor of regret mixed with hope should linger long enough to remind us we are no longer the people we used to be.  In some small way, God has extinguished a dangerous flame in us, or cleansed with fire an impurity of the heart.

I hope, when those kids got home last night, their parents sniffed them lovingly like they were puppies, and wondered at the fragrance of mercy that rubbed off on them.


My Father’s Map

Europe, 1971

Europe, 1971

My father once sat me down on the couch and placed a map of Central Europe in my lap.  He pointed to two major cities and said, “We have five months to get from London to Copenhagen.  You plan our route.”

I was ten years old.

My parents had decided to take us to Europe on an educational adventure for my entire 6th grade school year.   This was their way of involving me.  So I traced a pencil line that ran from London across the English Channel to Paris, down through the Basque region of Spain to the Costa del Sol, northeast into Switzerland, south to Italy, and back north through Austria and Germany before ending up in Scandinavia.  My parents respected my general itinerary and filled in the blanks with extended stays in suburban London, Marbella, Davos and Florence.

As the leaders of our family, my parents regularly led us on forays into unfamiliar territory and taught us to read maps and navigate the landscape.  On the way, everyone had a job (in Europe, I always carried the coats).  I like to think this kind of upbringing prepared me to approach life with a greater sense of curiosity, adventure, and confidence.

Somewhere in this story there is a lesson about leadership.

As leaders, we do not necessarily need to have all the answers.  We need to be clear about where we are and convey some vision of where we are going, but maybe everything between those two points should be collaborative.

If you are a pastor, what would it be like to say, “Here’s where I see us now.  Here’s where I dream we could be.  Does anyone else share that dream?  And if so, how would you like to get from here to there?”  Then, let the congregation buy into the journey, not just the destination, and try to give everyone a role in determining the next steps.

One thing that may be different in your church than on our family’s European voyage is that you can’t always plan the itinerary in advance.  Obstacles come along, some of them wonderful, and some of them treacherous, and we have to keep re-grouping and discerning to determine God’s direction at every stage.

But if, as a leader, you feel the burden is on you to figure out how to “save” your church or that it’s your job to get the congregation across some Jordan River, maybe you can instead turn to them, even to the youngest member or the newest member or a beloved spiritual leader of the laity, and listen in order to lead.

In October, my father passed away.  And this week, I am making the journey home to be with my siblings as we navigate the next stage of our family journey without him.  I am so grateful for the map-reading skills he gave us.  There is more road ahead and we will find the way!

*Photo by Marvin Irwin

A Thanksgiving Poem

Fall, 2012

Fall, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!   This year, I’m going to try to spend the day considering all the great things God is doing for me right now.

Here’s a poem I wrote some years ago.

Thanksgiving Poem

Just this once, lean back.

Take one hand off the shovel,

let the black earth rest

and lean back against the brick wall

from which all the warmth of summer has already been drawn.

It is autumn now.

The rain has fallen through the night,

and the ashen pillows of clouds have lingered all day

above our heads.

The wind, in heaving gusts,

has blown in the new season.

Everything is changing.

But we have tasted the first winter squash,

The first hen, roasted with applesauce.

We have gathered in the pumpkins

And lined them up by size

like obedient children on the porch.

Lean back, then, just this once

and take in the broad, uncertain sky.

Open the door of your breast and let loose

the dark, gnarled coil you have nursed there.

Just this once, let it go.

Let everything go with outstretched arms.

The welcome guest of this day has come to call.

The Plateau Effect

The Plateau EffectI came across this little slide show summarizing concepts from a book called “The Plateau Effect” by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson (Dutton, 2013). The writers talk about different ways people and groups get stuck in plateaus, and things you can try to re-gain growth and vitality.  I haven’t read the book, but these slides were helpful for me in thinking about ways churches get stuck in plateaus that eventually lead to decline.  A few examples:

  • Immunity means we keep trying harder to do the same old thing even as it becomes less effective.  Elsewhere I have referred to this as “bringing bigger balloons to Rally Sunday.”
  • The Greedy Algorithm is the idea that we choose short term solutions (Let’s have a bake sale!) over long term positive outcomes (Let’s become more generous Christians).
  • The Step Function refers to that problem where you know what you need to get out of a slump, but you don’t have the resources at your disposal.  As a remedy, the writers suggest finding partners for mutual support.  An example in churches might be partnering with another church for joint educational programs, joint mission projects, sharing a building, etc. (oh, and by the way, those other churches are not “competition”; they are fellow disciples!)
  • When I read about Choke Points I think of the naysayer in the church who always seems to stop anything creative from happening by reminding us of all the bad things that might result if we take a risk.
  • Distorted data results when we “measure the wrong things or inappropriately assess risk”.  Partial information may freeze everyone with fear or suppress change.  In one church, the data showed their income was dropping dramatically, but one leader kept repeating the mantra, “Somebody always comes through with a gift to save us.”  Then, nobody did.
  • Failing Slow: Decline has occurred so slowly that no one notices how far they have sunk until it is too late. (One solution: stop over-functioning and fail faster so you can get on to the next project that might be successful).
  • Distraction: We get so focused on the inside of our little church bubbles, we stop noticing the world we are called to serve.  We are distracted by our own interior conflicts and needs.  The writers call in this instance for radical listening, the “Yes, and…” that not only listens for the truth from outside ourselves, but builds on it with adaptation and more truth.
  • Perfectionism: Here is my latest beef: churches that spend a lot of time formulating new “policies”.  While I know some policies are necessary, too much policy writing prevents us from actually doing anything.  Instead, try just doing something, and if it bombs, you can always make a “policy” not to do it again.  But there is also a chance that you may actually do something well!

Those are just a few ideas to think about if you and your church are feeling stuck in a plateau that may lead to decline.

Willimon’s Take on the Small Church

Photo by Kevin Bauman

Photo by Kevin Bauman

In a recent edition of the Methodist “Circuit Rider” (Aug.-Sept., 2013), William Willimon  shocked readers a bit by writing his  brutally honest assessment of the small church as having a “deadly, club-like interiority, insufferable triviality, and hostility toward newcomers.” Ouch.

Willimon is widely respected as a Duke University professor of Christian Ministry Practice, while also serving as a Methodist Bishop.  In this article, he suggests that the endurance of small churches is not something for Methodists to be especially proud of:

Eighty percent of these small churches have not made a new disciple in the past two years. Their median age is higher and their diversity is lower than our larger churches. Because of the rapid decline of our medium size churches, we gain five times more small, dwindling congregations each year than we plant new churches. Virtually the only membership growth we are showing in our denomination is in our larger congregations.

I am tempted to rush to the defense of the small church here.  Some are located in places where demographic change alone makes it very difficult to attract new members, for example.   I want to defend all the fine Christians in small churches who may not have won a new disciple in the last 2 years, but who have done other heroic things for the cause of Christ.  I want to remind him that a few large churches are pretty dysfunctional, too.  Should they also be condemned?

But Willimon, more than blaming the small churches themselves, seems to blame the Methodist hierarchy, which offers “the world’s most expensive program of subsidy for small churches” (through the equitable salary system) and forces pastors to serve small churches “even when those churches show few visible marks of a faithful church.”

And on this point I think Willimon is on to something.  We are sentimental about “the little church in the dale” that has become a languishing club full of old friends.  This is not the highest purpose of the church, and we should be cautious about investing in such churches at the expense of more creative models of ministry that can nourish deeper discipleship.

But, while judicatory life support for dying churches is probably not wise, Willimon’s criticism of the small church is a poor way to come at the issue.  He might also implicate clergy, who sometimes protect their income sources from evaporating.  Or he could point at the seminary, which offers little or no training for clergy who will be guiding churches through closure in the next ten years.

I think it must be difficult to straddle the worlds of academia and judicatory.  In the one setting, we are bathed in images of what the church can and should be, while in the other setting, we are drowned by the reality of what it actually is: the cracked earthen vessel that houses the treasure.

Rev. Willimon might do well to read the text for this week from Exodus 32:7-14.  Like God, he is tempted to condemn all those “stiff-necked people” who never live up to God’s expectations.  But like Moses, I keep remembering an old promise God made, and I want to hold God to that promise, to not give up on us, any of us, even the insufferable, stiff-necked ones.

Shelving the Past

I called my carpenter friend Daryl when I needed some bookshelves installed on the wall of our tiny spare room.  I have a collection of books that I had no room to store.  I wanted the south wall of the room full of shelves, top to bottom.

Daryl came and studied the room.

“Why do you want shelves on the south wall?” he asked.

“Because that’s where they used to be.”  I said without thinking.

“Why don’t we put them on the north wall?” he suggested. I explained that wall had a a pocket door in it and we couldn’t drive nails through it.

“We could anchor the shelves from the ceiling,” he said.

Whoever heard of such a thing?

“Or how about we put the shelves on the east wall?” he asked.

“There’s a window in that wall so there isn’t as much space for shelving,” I reasoned.

“The south wall has a window, too.  It’s the same size,” he argued.

“Daryl,” I said.  “Don’t you ever just do what the customer wants?”

At that, he asked me to leave the room .  He studied the problem in silence for awhile and called me back in.

“This room is so small, you shouldn’t take up any floor space with shelving,” he announced.  “We’ll hang the shelving up above, say, 18 inches from the ceiling all around.  That way, you can have lots of shelving without using any floor space.”

“But I won’t be able to reach the books up there,” I protested.

He pointed to a step stool in the corner.

“But that’s so much trouble just to get down a book!”  I went on.

“And how often do you think you’ll be getting them down?” he asked.

This wisdom– from a man who doesn’t even read books.

I have worked with Daryl enough to know his solutions are usually far better than mine, so I gave i2013 summer Chloe 058n and let him hang the shelving from the ceiling.  The result, as you can see, is practical and looks cool.

I have since perched some books on the new shelves.  I chose some I don’t read very often, but refuse to part with: Frederick Buechner, Wendell Berry, the complete works of Annie Dillard and Joan Didion.  I included some I want people to think I read: Paul Tillich, Augustine’s Confessions, my behemoth Strong’s Concordance.  And I culled  a couple bags of books that, truthfully, I will never open again.

But the best part is–there’s room up there for some future books that haven’t even been written yet!

When I called Daryl, all I could see was the hole where the shelves used to be and the books I was clinging to from my past.  But Daryl doesn’t bring past baggage to his jobs.  He considers what is needed now and finds a new way to solve the problem.

Thanks, Daryl, for your ability to respond to what is needed now instead of trying to recreate the past.  If only we could teach ourselves as church leaders to do the same!