Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Questions We Ask About Church

Our church board is going on retreat for a few hours this Saturday.  When I say "board" I mean the Eliot Church Parish Committee, which is a much cooler name.  Lately we have been talking about our future.  We are--as congregations go--a healthy and dynamic group.  However, with that said, we have noticed what everyone else has noticed.  The world has changed and church...has not.  

Anyway, our retreat this year will be about what it means to be a congregation in this new world.  What does it mean for the institution?  What does this mean for our liberal faith? We don't really know.  What we do know is that the old things we have done aren't working well anymore.  We want to address these issues.  We want to have a conversation while we are still healthy that will prepare us for the future, whatever that may be.  the following is really a letter to them to get ready, but I thought I would share...

Dear Church Leaders,

We have a big weekend coming up and I am looking forward to it.  Our retreats in the past have inspired some of our most lasting ministries.  Things like the Garden, the Ukestra, Philosophers' Club, Pub Theology, Snow Posse, special services like Baseball Sunday, Blessing Sunday and so on. Family field trips,  Family Promise and cool Membership Committee events like the Jack O'Lantern competition have changed the way we do church. Music in the form of our expanded concert series has brought in people who would have never entered out doors otherwise.  Also, we began the building upgrade. We have a table at the Common.  You get the idea.  All of this has come from conversations at retreat.  Maybe not the exact ideas (which were worked out later), but the sentiment and the direction was begun and developed in that context.  Some things worked well and others didn't, but they are in a real and lasting sense the result of conversations refined at retreat.

One tool we are using for our conversation this time is a book by Rev. Dr. Jefferey Jones entitled "Facing Decline, Finding Hope: New Possibilities for Faithful Churches".  I will link to it at the end of this post.  It is a good read.  Jeff, himself will also be with us for our morning session.

His thesis is basically that not all churches will survive and that many of the ones that do will be transformed by the experience.  Phyllis Tickle, a respected expert on all things church, points out that religious institutions re-invent themselves every 500 years.  Jones accepts that idea and points out that we are due for another re-invention.  The world shifts over time.  Our culture, identities, and expectations shift, too.  Eventually the old institutions either adapt or make way for something new that works.  This is a time for adapting or for making way.  In a way it is a bummer.  In another way it is a blessing to be right where the action is.

However, what Jones points out (and I agree) is that we don't really have much consensus around what the "new thing" will be.  There are folks who are experimenting with a variety of models.  Some succeed and some fail but all give us information.  They all forge a path.  Most people and institutions, though, aren't doing this.  They are hoping to get by simply by tweaking here and there.  It is hard to adjust when you do not know what you are adjusting to, after all.  The problem is that tweaking doesn't cut it.  It is a decision for irrelevance.  The other problem is that tweaking is all we know how to do.

This doesn't mean that we need to run around like those metaphorical headless chickens!  In fact, we have some time.  The first step to entering into this new place is to ask some questions.  In fact, the questions themselves need to change from what we once asked, to what we now must ask in light of that massive societal shift that is happening around us.  Here are the questions that Jeff Jones asks in his book.  Again, I will link to it at the bottom if you would like to purchase a copy.  While the questions are Jeff's, the thoughts are mine...

Old Question: How do we bring them in?  New Question: How do we send them out?

You see the shift there right?  The first question is about maintaining that institution.  "How do we--short of kidnapping--get butts in the pews?  How do we make Sunday School more interesting than soccer or sleeping in?"  The second question is about how we empower our members and our community to interact with the world they live in.  There is a risk in asking this question over the old one.  But there are benefits as well if we take seriously the idea that the church is about sustaining people rather than sustaining itself.

Does the new question help answer the old one?  I think it does in this case.  People want to join a faith community that helps them to live authentic and fulfilling lives.  They will join congregations that are able to do this.

Let's try another shall we?

Old Question: What should the Pastor do?  New Question: What is our congregation's shared ministry?

There is that shift again!  The first is about staffing and assumes that the role of the staff (not just ministers) is to do the work of the church so everyone else can go about their business.  The second flips that.  The question is about how the church sees itself.  What does the community do to minister?

Is there a place for the staff in this new question?  Sure!  However we are on a loooong road trip and the driving needs to be at least shared.  Then the staff can take their turn at the wheel...and at the map...and leading the car games...singing the songs...picking the rest stop...changing the get the idea...

Old Question: What is our vision and how do we implement it?  New Question: What is God up to and how do we get on board?

This is one of those questions where perhaps as liberals we enjoy over-complicating.  We know that the word "God" means different things to different people but, really, it isn't so hard to grasp here is it?  The old question asks how we as a community want  to plan our future.  The new one asks where we are being led or taken.  The pre-socratic philosopher Heraclitus once said something to the effect that "you can never step in the same river twice".  The new question is simply "where is that river taking us"?  It is--no matter what theological language you prefer--a question of discernment.

Here is one that is common for many, many churches these days...

Old Question: How do we survive? (or in churches like Eliot that may be less desperate, "How do we restructure")  New Question: How do we serve?

I am not sure I even need to add much at this point.  There is the shift again.  We are hanging on to the old ways like a climber clinging to the cliff.  How do we let go?  How to we make the leap into the new?

OK, finally, one that has caused some confusion in these parts.  The fact is, our tradition has a particular way of talking that makes it hard sometimes to grasp points and concepts that are written or said in a way that comes from someone else's theological language.  Still, hopefully by this point--given the other examples--we can see the same shift here...

Old Question: What are we doing to save people?  New Question: What are we doing to make the reign of God present in this time and place?

At first in a liberal context the old question may not make much sense.  In our church there have generally been two responses to "saving" language.  There are those of us who do not believe people need saving and there are those of us who believe that "saving" people is something that the Great Whatever works out with individuals.  Both groups make a point of not "witnessing".  HOWEVER, guess what?  We do have strong opinions don't we?  We like to talk about them.  We like to bring folks around to our way of thinking.  Yes, we don't bring people to Jesus so they can get to heaven but we sure do stake out a position.

With that in mind, let's look at that second question in this final pair.  Again, we can let ourselves get hung up on the God language but we are better than that, people!  Our intern Shane points out that the idea of the "reign of God" is the same one that exists within one of our favorite hymns We'll Build a Land.  So the question is simply "Are we just talking or are we doing?"  "Are we trying to bring about the world we wish we lived in?" Or, perhaps more tellingly, "Are we just trying to change others or are we working to change ourselves?"

So there yah go.  The questions.  Maybe we need be asking both sets, maybe just one.  Either way, it is worth discussion.  One thing we do know is that the world is changing whether we like it or not...

I am looking forward to seeing you at retreat and then at our follow-up meetings.  thank you for being willing to take a look at these difficult questions.  You are great!

Yours in Faith and Hope,

Here (drum roll please) is a link to Jeff's book.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Think Broadly About Bi-Vocational

Busking in the church

It feels like this year the slow-burn of concern about the future of the institutional church has reached a new level of acceptance.  I find this interesting.  There is still a great deal of talk about revitalization and church growth and there should be.  At the same time, we are also recognizing that the world is changing and--for most congregations--what is coming will be very different than what has been.  Some churches will "die" and must choose whether to do so gracefully and authentically or whether to dissolve into a big hot mess.  Other congregations will change into something that none of us can quite anticipate or predict.

General Synod of just one of the "teams" I play for. (UCC)
Honestly, I am not worried long-term for the future of our deeply held faith traditions.  They will survive and flourish in whatever is to come.  Our institutions (things like denominations, traditional town-square church buildings, and full-time traditional ministries) will probably change quite a bit or cease to be relevant.  Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  My faith is not a building.  Nor is it a job.  Nor is it centered on a particular "team" of buildings and jobs.  Like most people, my spiritual life is growing and shifting along its own lines.  Our faith is transcending old forms of identity (like denominations) and moving out into...something...

That said, I do have a very specific investment in the old institutions.  I am a full-time pastor and I love both my congregation and my job.  I like what I do.  The problem is that it isn't all that clear what the future will bring.  What if at some point I can no longer be full-time? Church budgets are pressed everywhere.  More immediately, what about the younger, newer ministers entering the profession now?  A few will truck right along, I know.  Others will discover that the "career track" in the ministry is in the process of exploding.

All of this means that you and I--ministers, congregations, seminaries, individual lay-people--need to start thinking creatively about bi-vocational ministry.  At the seminary level, it might make sense to partner with a community college or trade school.  At the congregational level, it might make sense to adjust to the fact that your pastor may not be a "suit" for much longer.  For individuals (ministers and seminarians) it would be a good idea to get down learning different skill sets.  People should take this up this early on before they get old like me.

So...we need to think broadly about what those skill sets might be.  Right now most seminaries can train you up to simultaneously be a minister in another kind of non-profit.  These dual-degree programs work best when someone is in fact called to both disciplines.  Also they reflect a bias toward the old-school "professions" that isn't helpful.  The problem for many of us is that we aren't interested in other traditional professions. I looked at similar fields and chose the ministry because it fit my skill set and enabled me to do the things I like more than the things I didn't.  So why would I want my other job to be something that is kinda like the ministry but not as fulfilling (for me)?

What should happen instead is that we seek out this new vocation the way we sought out the old one.  What are we called to do?  Where can we continue to give to world while our spirit simultaneously gets filled?  If my church said they didn't need me full time, I would probably attempt being a busker/brewmaster/ukulele-maker/baker.  Then I would narrow it down.  None of these are taught in seminary. All of them take time to perfect.  All of them cost money to get started and a while to build up a customer base (yes, even buskers).  But I would love the work just like I love the ministry.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for the day.  The fact is, pretty much any minister born today will have to be part time at some point and probably for an extended time.  If we think of the ways this is a good thing then perhaps we will have more creative and energized ministries in the future.

Here are some links.

This one is to a recent Peacebang essay about some of the stresses on our congregation.

Here is a link to the book we are reading for our Parish committee retreat which discusses asking the right questions as we enter the unknown.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Church

The Flowers at our first annual "Healing the Holidays" service

We are getting close now.  Christmas Eve is just around the corner.  Like many congregations we have two services.  The first is at 5pm and features child musicians and readers.  The 7pm also has some child readers but is usually quite a bit quieter.  Both end the same way.  Carols are sung and candles are lit.  It is pretty and will be just as "Chrismassy" as it always is, even in the midst of the monsoon scheduled for the holiday.

However, we have had some other moments in our congregation that have brought out that same spirit.  Advent services have been well-attended. The annual pageant was a particular highlight.  Also, over the past couple of days we participated in two extra-curricular events that are important ones for our congregation.

The first of these is a new tradition.  Donna Vuilleumier, our Affiliated Minister whose regular ministry is in hospice, officiated a "Healing the Holidays" service for those people who were experiencing a sense of loss of emptiness during this time.  We were a small group, but a good one.  I knew all of them.  Stephen, Donna, Rebecca, John, Lori, Sue, and myself were all that could make it.  But it was important.  We are a community that cares for each other.  We reach out both in times of celebration and in times of grief.

The other was our annual caroling trip to the local hospital.  We have been doing this for around six years.  It was started by my then-assistant Matthew Carriker.  He has moved on but the tradition continues with his various successors doing much of the planning.  Each year we look forward to it.  We mess around with the caroling books (our original list didn't have enough "secular" carols).  We recruit pretty much the same kids to play instruments.  Basically we carve out the time and count the days.

Then we hustle to the hospital to sing.  People show up straight from work in their office clothes.  My son rushed there with his uke in between track practice and his band concert.  Others have a more leisurely approach.  Someone (I don't know who and it may be more than one someone) makes sure we have enough Santa hats.

We have been doing this long enough that I, at least, can mark the time by noting who has shown up on which year.  Who will be back next year?  Who will only now be missed and remembered?  As someone whose profession takes him to the hospital, I also remember my visits there without the carolers.  Friends and congregants who have stayed their and recovered.  Some, too, who did not.  The kids get bigger, we get older.  There are new folks who arrive and family visitors from out of town.  "That was the year when..."

This event matters.  It matters as much to those of us who participate as to those we are there to help.  It helps us define who we are as a community that is there for each other as well as for the world.  On Sunday after church, an older member of the congregation took my arm to tell me that she still remembers the time when we visited her in the hospital and sang as one of her favorite holiday memories.  She cannot make it to caroling herself but the fact we do it still brings her joy. This is wonderful.  As with the Healing service, we do what we do for those present and those not present.

To me this is Christmas.  The other stuff is nice, too.  However, in the end the best of the holiday is about building community and demonstrating our love and caring for others.  Maybe the stress of the season even helps us in a weird way.  It makes us mindful of how everyone is doing.  It makes us aware that each of us is struggling against the powers and that together we can create something beautiful.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Morn: Advent's Mental Health Day

I know you want to turn away.  It is a hard image to see that you cannot then unsee.  It will be there with you forever.  Yes, that is a collapsed fruitcake.  I was cooking it.  You may remember that I do that to relax and get into the Christmas spirit or whatever.  It is on my blog.  Anyway, instead of sliding in a charming way from the loaf-pan, it exploded.  A big cloud of steam engulfed both bread and baker leaving these course chunks of leathery defeat.  I can keep this thing forever if I want.  Like the surface of the moon, it is too inhospitable for anything to grow.

I post it today not to celebrate my defeat but because this sad scene reflects the mood of many of us as we stumble toward Christmas.  We began with so many hopes and dreams.  We had lists. We had goals.  We told ourselves that the commercial juggernaut would not have our souls.  We believed that we could in some sense responsibly react to the horrors of the news this month while also maintaining a spirit of peace, hope, love...and whatever that other stupid candle is about.  You know...the pink one!  Grrrrr....

Everyone in my family gets the same cold the last week of Advent.  It is a tradition.  As I was doping up my son today so he could go to his last day of school before break, I realized how crazy things have been.  I cannot remember the last time I was home at night, for example.  There have been so many things going on.  Some of them were work--Pub Theology, Parish Committee, Bible Seminar--but the real kicker has been the combination of kid stuff and holiday stuff.  I cannot remember a time before holiday planning.  Everything points to the Christmas Eve services now.

Don't get me wrong.  This is a wonderful time.  However, if you are the sort of person who wants to sift through the surface crap of the season to find meaning and sustenance (and I know you are) then you are working an extra job.  It is 24/7, my friends.  It is a time of anticipation and preparation.  This means digging deep sometimes what with all the mess and confusion of what the world throws at us.  We feel that broken fruitcake, don't we.

You may have noticed that folks are a little sensitive these days.  In the past week or so I have seen grown, sane, mature adults get weepy at the slightest provocation.  I have seen people crack under the strain of deciding between green and red...for anything.  I have colleagues who most likely don't remember quite how to get from their homes to their church even though many of them live right next door to work.  Sure, some of my UU compatriots don't seem to know anything big is going on (and--brothers and sisters--you know I love you, right?) but that just makes it harder for the rest of us.  This is an exciting time.  This is a holy time but, dude, we are carrying quite a load right now.

Still, Christmas is a'coming.  It will be great.  We will give the kids their stockings and tell them not to go downstairs until we are good and ready.  Then we will sleep as long as we can.  We will have a big breakfast and sit around in our PJ's messaging folks on Facebook.  Yes, we will celebrate the symbolic (but obviously not actual) birthday of Jesus.  In fact, it will mean more for the struggle of these days.  It will be wonderful.  Christmas is a party after the discipline of Advent.  I, at least, am looking forward to being part of that party.  Twelve. Whole. Days.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I Hate Christmas

I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them...Take away the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  Amos 5:21-24

So it took me about a week of Advent to get to that moment when I decide I am going to quit my job, sell my possessions, and go live in a yurt in Vermont somewhere far, far, away from anything holiday-related.  The moment happened while we were on our way back from the gingerbread house competition at the Worcester Art Museum.  I am not sure what pushed me over the edge.

The gingerbread house thing used to be quite an event when it was held at the now-defunct Higgins armory.  Higgins was an old factory that had been refitted to look like a 1940's idea of what a castle might be like.  Think Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. Inside was an excellent collection of armor and weapons.  It was decorated for the holiday.  There were various musicians of the sort one might expect to see at one's local "Christmas Revels" performance.  The entries tended to lean toward castles (how could they not?) and were done by very talented families, restaurants, and technical school culinary programs.  This year--in its new location--the castles were still there but they were set up in a hallway and might as well have been kids' science experiments for all the presentation they got.  Except for the promotion.  The event was promoted as something...well...better.

Fortunately the trip was saved by the wonder that is the Worcester Art Museum.  If you haven't been, it is worth the drive.  I promise.  The armor was set up in its own exhibit ("Knights!").  Also, they have a respectable permanent collection of European and American art along with a few very special pieces you will have to see for yourself.  The point is, I am not sure that was what caused the funk.

More likely it was the drive in the dark and rain down Route 9 in order to get home.  There are few better examples of how enforced happiness just makes us more vicious.  If you live in the 'burbs (and odds are you do) you know Route 9 even if your Route 9 has a different name.  There are malls and shopping centers one after the other for miles and miles.  There is traffic exacerbated by awkward street lights, weird pedestrian crossings, and eccentric driving from all the people who use their animal brains to get the best deal. People come from other states to research how not to build a road. It is that bad.  In December it is at its worst, because we are at our worst, too.

Anyway, I hit the ribbon candy wall.  I was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and upended.  I sat there in the traffic thinking about all that is going on in the world right now.  We have a whole lot of problems. Yes, police militarization and entrenched racism spring right to mind these days, but do you remember immigration?  How about  those fraternities?  Yet here we all were, on this ridiculous road on a Saturday night generally not coping well. In fact, we were engaged in another illness...rampant consumerism.  My job is to point out the places where God exists in our lives and to point out the powers that keep us isolated from the Divine in ourselves, in each other, and in the world.   I thought of all the places that I am able to see God and Jesus at work--some of them are truly strange--and I felt far, far from any of them.

Now, I hit that wall pretty early.  However, that is probably also work-related.  You see this season is something I start planning for pretty early in the year.  Also, most of what I do in Advent has something to do with the holiday.  There are no TP reports in the ministry, after all.  Anyway, I got better because Sunday happened.  We had church.  I got to preach on that ancient Occupy-protester known as John the Baptizer.  I talked about fruitcake.  In fact, I was in a good enough mood to go to the Elm Bank Festival of Trees and check out the electric trains at the "Snow Village".  Very cool.

So I don't hate Christmas today.  Tomorrow, of course, I may change my mind.  That is how it works sometimes.  I suspect that everyone will hit the wall at least once this holiday season.  The struggle for all of us is what we do when we do.  For some folks it is best to step back, stop listening to carols, read a book about something else, start thinking about baseball season.  Others can go all in and surrender to the craziness of it all.

For me it is always an issue of redefining the holidays.  For most folks this is a secular holiday with a vaguely religious veneer.  The absence of actual spiritual meaning is filled up with some pretty shallow stuff.  My problem on Saturday night essentially stemmed from being confronted with the Christmas that I don't believe in.  That Christmas I hate.  For me this is a time when we take our spiritual beliefs (whatever they may be) and try to live into them.  We try to be the sort of person we once aspired to be.  We try to be the one we are called to be.  All the decorations and rituals are there to remind us that life is more than what we see.  That our divine connections are what are most important.  Fortunately I have church to remind of this even when it isn't Christmas.

I hope your acts of redefinition are going well.  I pray that you have found an Advent discipline that keeps you grounded and committed.  If you need a hand, let me know.  We all have times when this season starts to look like a long party that has ceased to be either interesting or relevant.  If this happens to you and you want to talk.  Drop me a line.  You know where to find me.

Friday, December 5, 2014

About that "Advent Calendar Posts 2014" Section...

So you may have seen the tag on the right of this page implying that I am doing some sort of virtual "Advent Calendar".  I am.  However, I am doing in on Facebook.  Some days involve lengthy essays.  Some days involve videos (sermons and music) and articles shared from somewhere else.  The collection on this page is for columns from this blog that appear this Advent on the FB page calendar.  If you want the other stuff, then it would be best to "like" BP on Facebook.  I post around 7am every day during Advent.  Then it gets very quiet....

Anyway, I am not hard to find.  There is a link to the Facebook page on the right as well...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

My Advent Racism Post

I went over to the coffee shop downtown today and bumped into my neighbor Rob.  We got chatting about the season and--knowing that I am prone to do this sort of thing--he asked me what I am "giving up" or taking on for Advent.  I told him I was struggling against my own racism.

It is true, but I hate to say it.  It sounds like just the thing a caricature of a liberal Christian minister would say.   It sounds holier than thou.  Perhaps it even appears a bit more pointed.  "Look at me!  I am doing minister-purification stuff! What are you up to?  Just having coffee?"  It is easy to tune out things like that.

However, I don't feel that pure.  I am a Calvinist (albeit a liberal--Universalist--one) and my racism--like many of my faults--stands out to me as a power to be fought.  I first truly clued in to being a racist while I was in high school and working for the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign.  It turned out that over the years of my upbringing, my whiteness (or, really, pinkness) in a white community had instilled certain assumptions within me, certain feelings, certain fears that required (and still require) my attention.  I am a racist.  This is how I see it.

Now, neither you nor I are likely the kind of racist that immediately springs to mind.  We get angry at those racists and we should.   We may even feel a certain superiority.  That, my friends, is the problem.  Charles Blow in today's New York Times writes, "racist is the word that we must use.  Racism doesn't require the presence of malice, only the presence of bias and ignorance, willful or otherwise." Liberals have biases, too. We need to remember to be vigilant.  

I could say that I am a "person with racism" and label it like the disease it is.  However, I worry that it will let me off the hook. "Don't worry about Adam.  He has racism.  He can't help it."  

OK so...why is this struggle my Advent discipline?  This year, it is hard to figure out how it wouldn't be.  For work I think about Advent.  I also pay attention to what is going on in the country.  My days swing between these foci.  Fruitcake...then Ferguson.  Planning worship...then Michael Brown.  Practice the Nutcracker on the ukulele...then Eric Garner, who was 43, exactly my age.  How could I not be thinking about race in this country?  How could I not wonder about those assumptions once again.  How could I not wonder how my daily existence differs from Eric's?  How could I not want to do something about it?  I believe racism is a disease that can--ultimately--be cured.  You need to work at it, though.  Everyone has caught the bug and there is no pill.

A couple years ago I was stopped by the police while walking through my neighborhood.  Someone thought I looked suspicious.  When closer inspection revealed my harmlessness the police wrapped up pretty darn quick.  Back then I wondered what would have been different had I been someone other than Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot, pastor of that church down the street.  I kinda knew, frankly, but right now the illustration is stark.

Is there hope in all this?  Yes.  I think there is.  Many of my colleagues are reporting disagreements with people over various aspects of these cases.  I am not surprised.  Folks are at war with each other because they are at war within themselves.  People are struggling with their own deeply embedded notions of their own goodness.  I have received push back, too.  However, I have also been amazed by the outpouring of anger concerning these verdicts and concerning the underlying institutions that make them possible.  I am glad folks are waking up.  After centuries of generally ignoring the unequal response of our society toward people of color--the historical record is embarrassingly clear--we are fighting back against our own dogmatic slumbers.   It is painful but it has to be done. 

The trouble seems to arrive when we have to examine ourselves.  Not everything is holly and ivy and mistletoe after all.  The world is still ugly even when we look away.

Again, why deal with race during Advent?  That is easy.  The Advent story is about oppression.  It is about displacement.  Christmas may be a party but Advent is not. Right now is the best time to take a look at that story in the Bible and to live our way way into it.  The Hope of Advent isn't a hope to maintain things as they are.  The Peace of Advent isn't about hushed silences, carols and hot chocolate but about equal justice.  This isn't a time to ignore the violence we do but to face it.  It is also time to acknowledge our own complicity and to act in the midst of our flaws.

One.  More.  Time.  This is the moment for white people--even or especially the purportedly liberal ones--to acknowledge our complicity.  It is time for the white church--perhaps particularly the suburban one--to acknowledge its (our) complicity as well.

This is the season of preparation for nothing less than the birth of God.  Perhaps we will never be pure as individuals or as a society.  However, we cannot afford to throw our hands up in despair.  This holiday season it is time to fight the racism we see in our institutions and in ourselves.  Let us talk.  Let us march.  Let us act in ways large and small before the moment is lost.

Here is the article that I quote from Charles Blow.