Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Liberal Church Needs Christmas

Hey Folks,

According to my FB feed I should already be getting myself into my annual state of XMas rage.  I should be mad at Fox News for their pretend "War on Christmas" (I am).  I should be angry at retailers being open on Thanksgiving (I am).  I should be annoyed about the general commercialism of "the Holidays" (of course I am).  I should also point out that it isn't really that important a holiday in the Christian calendar anyway (duh...obviously).  Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday in the world. Ever.  Easter comes in second.  I so get it.  This run of holidays beginning with Halloween, reaching its peak with XMas and coasting to a stop around New Year's (for the unchurched) and Epiphany (for the rest of us) is a bit of a chore.  It's all about hype and money and whatnot.

However--ministers--could I just direct you to something important?  For many of the people in your community (not necessarily your congregation, but the community at large) this is the only time they think about all those things we think about the rest of the year. I mean in a focused way. This means while we are grinching our way along, we are getting killed by the secular culture and the religious right.  They speak the language that others speak rather than speaking thier own language slowly, expecting folks to understand.

The season starts (as I mentioned) on Halloween when we think about fear and death.  Then there is Thanksgiving which is about gratitude, family and so on.  Then there is XMas which is about presents (if you let it be) or about something so much more.  That "something" though, is hard to articulate if we don't think about it until it is upon us.  You know those fellow humans who aren't darkening your doors on Sunday; the ones at sports, the ones at work, the ones with the New York Times who think they are just a bit too cool for school?  Something happens to them this time of year.  They feel an urge that they cannot quite place.

Now, we might call this urge the "movement of the Spirit," or "God," or "The Divine," or "The Great Whatever".  They call it "Christmas Spirit".  That is their word. It is what they have and they want to know more.  That is why they suddenly show up around this time of year.  To reach them we have to speak the language they know, not beat them about the head and shoulders with our purity.  Then, if we can do speak in a way that respects their humanity, we can broaden their vocabulary.  We can talk about the Jesus of Faith, Hope, Peace, and Love.  We can talk about Justice and all those good things that they may think about, but don't get to think about systematically the rest of the year.  Maybe they might even like church and visit us again.

This is important, grouchy pastors.  We are being tuned out because we often speak a language of arrogance and exceptionalism.  We correct people.  We judge them.  They are trying to get some of what we say we have and instead of support or direction they are getting guff.  They aren't shopping the right way.  They like to listen to carols in November.  Their turkey isn't organically fed love maggots and tickled to death.  That is what they hear, anyway, and we are paying the price.  In our churches we pay.  In our nation we pay.  Since some of us woke up this morning to find a post-election disaster, I think it is clear that the message that we declare from our pulpits isn't getting too far out our doors.  If you do not meet people where they are, they won't listen to you.

What I am NOT suggesting here is that we join the throng at Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving night!  What I do suggest is that we take a moment to think about how we can--using the "pulpits" that are least ignored during this time--provide some counter-mojo that affirms those seekers we are turning off.  I am serious.  "God" to many people means getting to buy stuff and say "Merry Christmas" to whoever you darn well please.  It is a way to channel our anger into what should be a happy and glorious occasion.  Seems pretty shallow to me.  We offer a deeper God, one that calls us to serve something greater than ourselves.  How do we get that message through?  How do we get people to listen?  Probably not by yelling.

Anyway, I have already begun planning for the holidays.  Since I see it as a single piece with many "movements", I started October 1 getting ready for Halloween.  I will try to share stuff with you if I find something that makes sense.  Worship planning is a great place to start.  After all, this is the time when you never know who might go to church...

Here are my past "shopping tips".  One thing that might help (I have usually failed) is to clear the deck of this sort of obligation so you can focus on the spiritual work at hand during Advent.  Which to say, you can actually spend time being religious, yourself.

The Ukulele Buyers' Guide Part I and Part II

And the "Ethical Shopping" post of many years ago...  Part I and Part II

Friday, October 17, 2014

Preaching and Dry Spells

I have never had writer's block.  At least I have never had it in the stereotypical way.  My image of someone with writer's block is of a tormented, heavy-drinking genius tearing paper out of the typewriter, balling it up and inexplicably missing the waste basket next to the desk only to furiously start again.  That is how it is right?

I have never had this because, as a preacher, I work on a weekly deadline.  Journalists, I suspect, know what I am talking about.  The deadline--the risk of getting up in church and having nothing to say--clears the mind beautifully and means that something gets created in the time span given.  That said, there are times when sermon preparation is easy and it flows right along.  Then I am prompted to ask "where did that come from?"  However, there are times when the process takes forever, the weight of words is vastly heavy, and the result is never quite what I want.  When that happens I have a tendency to whine on Facebook and to my wife.  I am not proud.

Of course, environmental factors play a huge part in this.  Right now we are gearing up at church in a number of ways.  My job has changed, too.  We used to have an "Associate Minister for Religious Education."  Now we have a parish intern (and a good one, too).  This has meant different sorts of duties for me that need to be fit into an old job.  I have supervision, of course, which comes with various trainings.  I am much more involved in our Religious Education program for the kids.  As a long-term pastor I am now taking on more responsibility in areas of congregational life that I was previously less involved in.  We are adding programs--like Pub Theology--while trying to maintain old ones--like Philosophers' Club.   My kids are at particularly parent-heavy ages.

What this has meant is that the actual cycle has been been broken up a bit.  During dry spells, sermon writing becomes a task that is wedged in between administering the discretionary account, getting caught up in a spontaneous (but important) conversation, sending emails, running programs, and whatever else needs doing.  The problem is, however, that inspiration can't really be scheduled.

For a good preaching ministry there must be a steady pattern of " again...preach again" that runs in the background seven days a week.  When this stream is flowing steadily and well, worship is invested with the spirit and has spirit in the moment.  If not, then the process is more like a person looking for the car key.  There is a lot of wandering, swearing, self-doubt, and foolish relief at its final discovery.  To fix this problem there needs to be down time.  There needs to be tasks not of the "required" kind but of the kind that call to you.  Non-deadlined creativity helps.  It doesn't even need to be all that good.  I use music, photography, and writing in a weblog that no one reads unless I write the word "ukulele".

Anyway, these spells pass and the stream runs again.  I have enough faith to believe in that!  However, my thoughts go out to all those people--pastors and others--who use their creative gifts for the common good.  This is a difficult and busy period. On Sunday one of the "pillars" of the church said, "I do not envy those pho preach in times like this." Here's praying that your stream doesn't run dry, that you find a way to break up the jams, and that you are able--not matter how hard the task--to keep on creating what this world needs and requires.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Things We Should Talk About as Long-Term Ministers

One of my greatest weaknesses as a pastor is--quite simply--that I am not the most organized person to ever wear a Geneva gown.  It is a problem that members of my church are rather familiar with.  Over the 11-plus years we have been together we have learned to adapt and adjust.  Like any long-term relationship, we have found ways to bring out the best in each other...most of the time.

However, one of the problems that this creates is that I am suddenly feeling the need to learn more about long-term ministry.  Being in such a ministry will do that to you.  I have changed since I arrived in September of 2003.  My congregation has changed.  The landscape we now are moving through has also changed.  We are doing just fine, thank you, but I feel that I need to reflect a bit to be on my game.

The best way would be an ongoing group or a workshop.  That is the problem.  I am not good at planning.  However, I am good at thinking so I thought I would share with you some of the topics that I think such a workshop or group would have to address if someone more gifted in this way were willing and able to work with me on such a thing.

1) Big Famous Keynote: Yes, we can have one of these. I am affiliated with both the UUA and the UCC.  So is my church.  It isn't hard to think of a few former pastors of big churches who fit into this category and who love to talk. However, what I am looking for from him or her is something very specific.  I want theological and spiritual reinforcement for the value of long-term pastorates.  This is important stuff and plays right to the strength of "Reverend Biggs".  For applied and practical elements, I want to hear from other people who have experience in congregations that are a bit more typical.  

2) How Do You Advance Your Career?: ...and what constitutes a successful career if you have stepped away from a system where bigger is always better? 

We know why Reverend Biggs stayed at the big steeple right?  The pay was good.  Important people had heard of the good reverend's church and wanted to invite the pastor onto committees and such.  There was time off (thank you Associate Pastors!) to write that meditation manual.  This is all fine.  Rev. Biggs worked hard, spoke well, and got the brass ring young enough to also serve in one place for a while.

Most of the long-term pastors I know, however, do not serve "big pulpits".  We labor in relative anonymity.  It is an easy thing to get noticed in that one big congregation in your association.  What do the rest of us do to influence the direction of our various denominations?  How do you get your voice heard when you have stepped off the career ladder for something you find more fulfilling?

3) How Do You Grow Spiritually Together?: Or, if you prefer, "How do you keep from getting bored or being boring"?  A long-term pastorate, like any long-term relationship, can get dull if you don't work on it.  My wife and I go to a lot of concerts, date nights, couples nights, and so on.  We go for long walks to chat.  We have been together for twice as long as I have been at the church.  

Now I am not one of those "ministry is like a marriage" people because, well, it isn't like a marriage at all.  That said, it is still a relationship that needs work. What are the equivalents to these sorts of experiences in a long-term ministry?  I will say that I have had two rather distinct ministries at Eliot.  There was the one before my sabbatical and the one after it.  Both were quality ministries but they were different.  I wonder if some sabbatical planning would make a good workshop.

4) How Do You Grow On Your Own?:  Again, the same people all the time.  The same patterns.  What do you do away from the church to keep yourself sharp?

5) What About New People?: Some long-term ministers are pretty good about integrating new people.  Others not so much.  We have leaders we are comfortable with.  Often we have known them for what feels like FOREVER.  What sort of tricks and techniques would help facilitate lay-leadership growth?

6) How Do You Not Mess It Up For the Next Person (and here I mean Parson)?: This. Is. Important.  A Church isn't after all, about us.  In a long-term ministry it is inevitable (particularly in small and mid-sized churches) that the pastor becomes part of the architecture in some sense.  The church building...the old communion silver...the ancient pastor who baptized both you and your kids...all are permanent and timeless after a while.  What happens to the new person when they show up?  How hard have we made it for them if we have over a decade of service in one place?  I would like to hear from a really good Interim and find out what drives them crazy about us.  I even have someone in mind.

7) God:  This is the most important question.  Where is God in our ministries?  Are we in the same place because we don't want to (or cannot) move?  Is there still life and spirit in the pastoring? These are important questions.  Certainly there are always practical considerations that make us choose to stay.  At the same time we are ministers.  If God says "go" we go.  If God says "stay" we stay.  Perhaps this is where we end with small group discussion inspired by Reverend Biggs' sermon. We cannot let our relationship with God get old.

Anyway, this is my non-exhaustive list.  Can anyone think of other items?  My years at Eliot easily rest among the very best things that have ever happened to me.  I know that every long-term minister would agree about their settlements.  That is why we are still around.  That is why we do the work we do.  The challenge is to keep doing that work and to do it well...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I Am Quitting the NFL

Regular readers of Burbania Posts will know that there was a time when I watched a whole lot of football.  I even religiously tuned in to the 24-hour infomercial that is the NFL Network. I wrote about it here (check out the sports pages in my archives).  I made predictions.  The first Sunday of our church year is called "Kickoff Sunday" partly because we are kicking off the new year...and partly because the new season begins that afternoon.  The point is, I was almost a super fan.  The only thing keeping me back was that I couldn't bring myself to engage in the frightening debates at the bottom of the "comments" section on

I got into it in a roundabout way.  I live in a place where baseball remained king for longer than anywhere else (Go Red Sox!). It was as a youngish adult that I turned to the fandom of professional football. It began by hanging out with the Phys. Ed. majors in my dorm. I embraced it with the zeal of a convert. That is coming to an end now. 

In fact, the end began a few years ago with the slow erosion of my trust in the institution of the NFL.  I don't think I have to go into details, do I?  There were a number of ill-conceived labor disputes culminating in the absolutely ridiculous lock-out of the referees.  I took a break then, because I don't cross picket lines, even TV ones.  Then there were the revelations around concussions.  Perhaps most importantly, I (and others) had the creeping suspicion that the league and it's owners didn't particularly care about the health of players and former players as much as they cared about message control.    About a third of the way through last year's season, I turned off the TV and didn't return until the Super Bowl.

"Protect the Shield" is the unofficial slogan of Commissioner Roger Goodell and it has made him very popular among his employers.  The league does its best to project an image that is as pure and wholesome as eating apple pie at a church social, but reality keeps sneaking in.  Do I need to mention that racial slur used as a "mascot" in our nation's capitol?  The league keeps saying that it is respectful--even an honorific--to Native Americans even though pretty much everyone they aren't paying says it isn't.  This week we get to hear that there are new rules around players committing acts of domestic violence.  Why?  Because the league just discovered that most fans view it as more heinous a crime than smoking pot.  The two-game suspension of Ray Rice seems a bit too much like the punishment parents give out to kids when they secretly think their child can do no wrong.  What world do they live in?  Protect the shield.  Always make sure the money keeps rolling in.  That is their world.

Here is what I saw before I turned off the TV.  In earlier times I had seen a pleasant diversion, an interesting metaphor for the struggle of life, even a certain regional pride as I watched my home team.  In that last game, though, something was different. I saw a wealthy old billionaire high-fiving his billionaire friends while his employees permanently damaged their heads, spines, legs and backs in pursuit of...something.  On the sideline was the caricature of the sort of horrible, screaming, obscene middle-aged suburban dad most of us try not to become at youth sporting events.  I asked myself if I wanted to be the sort of person who condones this.  The answer, it turned out, was "no".  

Look, I am not anti-football per se.  You will see me at the annual high school Thanksgiving game and maybe at a couple more.  What I am is anti-NFL, at least in its current incarnation.  The game has problems.  It has really, really big problems that trickle down to that high school field and need to be addressed in an open, honest, forthright manner.  No pretending.  No fakes.  Deal with the issues and I will come back.  Don't and I won't.  I can go outdoors and spend time with my family on Sunday afternoons.  I am quitting the NFL.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The First Week of September is the Loneliest Time in Church

So I haven't gotten tired of waving at people yet.  This past week as folks have returned from various points there has been a rush of friendly greetings from cars and sidewalks.  In the coffee shop I run in to neighbors and congregants.  The whole neighborhood converges at the school pick up line.  I am a small church pastor.  I am not famous.  Yet most of the people I know and who know me live in a very small geographic space.  Life is noisy and  even joyous right now, like a middle-aged version of college move-in day.  We are back from our epic seasonal adventures.  We are out and about.

I am returning from what may have been the best summer of my life.  I will do my best to write about parts of it when I can.  Now, though, the kids are in school. My wife and I are at work.  I have been sending emails, going to meetings, preaching and picking on Sundays and making phone calls so much that my voice is rough and my fingers hurt.  We are building (or re-building) the community we depend on to keep us grounded in a sometimes impersonal world.  However, the sanctuary is still silent.  It is still clean.  It is static and waiting for the party to begin.  When I get off the sidewalk and walk into the office I share with our Church Administrator, Felicia and our new Ministerial Intern, Shane. I am suddenly alone.

Such is the way with church this time of year.  We are busy, but not for what is "right now".  Instead we are preparing for "not yet".  It is my least favorite part of the church cycle.  Every year I wonder if this will be the one when no one bothers to show up the Sunday after Labor Day. 

Yes, we have summer services.  Yes, the leadership and the staff are prepared and ready.  At the very least that great and vibrant core group will be around.  Still, I have at various times in my life thrown parties where no one ever arrives.  Also, there was that one year some eight ago when it took many members the vast bulk of September to remember that there was a church and they should be in it.  In the silence I wonder.  I wonder if people will remember to bring their kids back on September 7 when Sunday School begins.  Will the Middle School Youth Groupers gather at 9am on the 14th right before our Ingathering and water service?  I sure hope so.  I would miss them if they don't.
My prayers these days are for all those people who staff our small and mid-sized congregations.  It is a little surreal running about from task to task in the quiet of an empty church.  We really do know that eventually the folk will return.  It is just strange, that's all.  And it isn't anything we want to get used to....

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Does Burbania = Middle School?

A long, long time ago, I moved to Burbania with my wife and (back then) two children.  I had--with the exception of a 9 month internship in Grosse Pointe, Michigan--never lived in the 'burbs.  I am a country boy and have inhabited a number of small towns in Maine both growing up and as an adult.  When I wasn't part of the rural landscape (like parts of college and grad school), I lived in cities (Montreal, Chicago). I was, therefore, a bit unprepared for the basic social dynamics that come with settling in to this kind of place.

You see, our arrival had clearly created something of a ripple in the social fabric.  I don't think this has anything existentially to do with us.  I believe every new arrival in these parts creates ripples.  Everyone, it seemed, was trying to figure out what to do with us both as individuals and as small, tightly knit social groups.

Things sorted themselves out, of course, but there was this confusing phase.  We would be invited to an event at one person's house...and then not invited to another event at another house that had the same people attending.  Our kids would get to go to certain childrens' birthday parties...but not others.  Book Clubs were like that, too.  Really, anything one might describe as a "club" was. Sports teams--ostensibly randomly assigned--would end up with all my sons' friends on the same one...and my son on another.  I spent hours on the sidelines essentially by myself, or talking to another person who was essentially by him/herself.  They, too, were usually new to town.

Like I said, things worked out, rather painlessly.  Both my wife and I have jobs.  Some of my closest colleagues and their families live in the area.  The fact is, we have a broad range of affiliations and friendships.  We also have each other, which is the very best thing.  Also, I now know to bring a book to youth sporting events.  My kids, too, have found places for themselves and seem to be fine.  That said, in the midst of all the confusion around "finding a place", I remember thinking to myself, "Wow, this is just like middle school".  Knowing this is good.  After all,  anyone who has actually been to real middle school should have low expectations for the adult version.

In the very small towns you hang out with whomever there is to hang out with.  There aren't enough people to be picky.  In the city there is so much to do, why would you want to limit yourself to one group? Middle and high school (and college for some) seemed to me to be where you get to worry about who is "in" and "out".  That is when you gossip and have comically serious conversations about who to exclude (or include).  That is where the social standing of your friends (and spouse) still matters.  Then we grow up and move on...right?


 Turns out, in Burbania there is still a strong streak of tribalism and "clubiness" that I don't understand.  I am including a link below to an article from Boston Magazine that examines one--rather extreme--slice of the suburban social scene.  I think it is a worthwhile read for everyone.  The reason that it rises to the level of brief blog post, however, is that if you read the article looking for "institutions of exclusion" (my term) that help to define these small social groups, one of the ones you will find is the church.  It is a heartbreaking story, actually.

The fact is, the church must work hard to keep itself off this list.   It is easy for a congregation to end up becoming--or appearing to become--an exclusive social club.  This is a bad thing.

Sure!  People are allowed to hang out with who they want.  However, a church, regardless of its size or theology, is there to serve the broader community.  It must be open to as many people as possible.   The liberal church--at least in theory--throws its doors and arms wide open to create a diverse and loving community.  It should not be reduced to being defined as "the place where those people go" unless those people are then defined as "open, welcoming, spiritual, accepting, and loving".

Anyway, here is the article.  If it appears to be about folks aspiring to be rich socialites, that's because it is.  It isn't really my experience and it may not be yours. However, in the socially stratified world we Burbanians get to move in, many of the same principles still hold.  People shouldn't be reduced to burying their noses in a book and hoping no one notices how alone they look.  Pastors and other church leaders need to remind themselves of this.  Every. Single. Day.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Survival of the Liberal Church

Recently my Assistant/Intern Jerrod Oltmann asked me who I meant when I said things like "liberal religion".  The answer, of course, is that I use the term broadly.  I mean the liberal Christianity of the United Church of Christ as well as the more amorphous liberalism of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  I also see liberals in a diverse number of traditions not my own.  Basically, if you see the conversation between "secular" (I use quotes here because life is sacred no matter what compartment you choose) and "sacred" (or the church, or theology, or merely seeking deeper meaning) as a two-way thing, then I think you are at least open to the idea of the liberal religious tradition.  The goal, I think, for all of us, is to integrate all our sources into one understanding.

Of course, there is more to this than reading or reflecting on one's own.  For me, truly formative religion happens in the context of a faith community--formal or informal.  There needs to be intention and accountability.  There needs to be a real and living language that forms the foundation for our thoughts and conversations.  Otherwise that ubiquitous pretty sunset is just oddly moving.  The moment passes and we go back to the same Habitrail we left.  Religion--liberal and otherwise--is a building.  You need a crew. You also need to work at it or it will collapse (or never get built) and then you will be standing like a confused idiot in the rain...talking only to yourself if you even bother to listen.

I have made my life in the context of the church.  I just have.  I work for a church and have for a long time.  Before that I worked for other congregations and attended others.  I have sat in many seminary classrooms.  A large portion of my friends do the same kind of work.  Many non-clergy folks I know and love spend a great deal of time and effort keeping their particular faith community running and healthy for free.  Others just attend when they can and that's fine, too.  For all of us in these categories there is something that makes us come back and connect to the larger community and--yes--to the Divine (however you want to parse that word).

Of course, I also have friends who don't belong to any community of faith.  That's OK.  I don't judge.  I really don't. In fact, if you are one of those people, I like hanging out with you because we get to talk about music and politics and beer and kids which is awesome!  Most of these sorts of people I know have found communities elsewhere.  However, I have never met a person who wouldn't have had their lives enriched or improved by belonging to some kind of congregation.  Most of the people I know would be best fit into a liberal one.

Why don't they all go run off and join a church?  The answer isn't as simple as busy lives and youth sports.  There is other stuff going on.  Much of it the church brought upon itself over the centuries.  If you watched the first episode of Cosmos, for example, you know that religion hasn't always been that tolerant or, you know...liberal.  People remember this.  They remember their own experiences, too.  Sometimes the biggest enemy of liberal church growth is other churches.  We are not the same, but how would people who don't go to church know that?

Others just go on what they see in the media.  News reports love the fundamentalist.  It is so clear and easy to say "all churches believe X".  Why bother with subtlety?  Sitcoms, movies, books and TV dramas throw in a minister or dedicated layperson whenever they need some shorthand for intolerance or prudishness.  Sometimes we are lovably uptight.  Sometimes we are evil.  Rarely are we depicted as the hero.  Almost universally we are depicted at least as "squares".  Perhaps shockingly, the hippest and coolest people I know are clergy and other church people.  This isn't just because I am a minister, either.  Believe me.

All this is just to lead up to one of the challenges we face.  By "we" here I mean the liberal religious.  It is a challenge that I face as a leader and pastor to a particular congregation.  How do we welcome people who don't even know we exist?  How to we bring people in not for the sake of the institution but for the sake of those very people?  It is a struggle with no one answer.  After all, what makes us strong is our diversity as well as our depth.

I read this article this morning.  There are literally thousands like it on the web but for some reason it stuck with me.  You should check it out.  What do you think?  If you go to a church, or synagogue or mosque (obviously the article is written from a Christian perspective, but many of the ideas have parallels in other faiths), does this approach make sense to you ?  If you are not part of a faith community, does this look like the problem?  Have you thought about joining a liberal congregation?

I would love to know what you think.  If you have no thoughts to share, I would love for you to keep thinking about this issue.  We are, after all, talking about the health and survival of the liberal voice in contemporary conversation.