Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

What’s Saving Me: The Five Minute Journal

This week I’m over at the NEXT Church blog. This fall they’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Here’s my offering.

What’s saving my ministry these days is a five minute journaling practice I’ve been doing each morning (and most evenings) for the past few months. I’ve tried various journaling methods off and on for years. Something about holding the pen in my hand allows me to focus my prayers in a way my monkey mind can’t do by simply sitting quietly. And now that I work from home “for myself,” I have lots of possible things vying for my attention and time. I was looking for something short and focused that could bring clarity and discernment to my day.

8Y0EDX4VP9Many of us are familiar with Julia Cameron’s morning pages, which she calls her “spiritual windshield wipers.” This practice serves the same purpose, but instead of writing stream of consciousness, I write short pithy statements. Whereas morning pages are like an epic poem, this is journaling as haiku. I adapted it from Tim Ferriss, an author and entrepreneur. He’s a little too “guru” for me, but I think he’s hit upon a good structure to get the day started with intention.

Here are the questions for the morning:

Three things for which I’m grateful:

Three things that would make this a fruitful day: These don’t have to be things I want to accomplish, but they usually are. Most of us have way more than three things on our daily to-do list, so it helps to be clear on the most essential items.

An affirmation: 
I am…
I have three kids, so “patience” shows up a lot here.

I’m curious about:
This is something I’ve added recently, thanks to Brené Brown’s work. This is often where I think about my reactions to things and wonder “What was THAT about?!” 

As for the evening practice, it is similar:

Three things to celebrate about the day:

One thing I could have done better:

Those of you who know the Ignatian examen will recognize threads of this practice in these questions. The questions are framed in terms of gratitude, and there is ample space to acknowledge the times I’ve fallen short—to see them written in my own hand, and to let those moments go—to let God absorb and hopefully transform them.

Are Religious Children Less Generous Than Non-Religious Ones?


Last week The Guardian published the results of a study that claims to demonstrate just that:

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

Someone asked me a few days what I thought about the study. I said, “Non-religious people get to feel superior and vindicated in their choices, conservative evangelicals can complain about the liberal media, and progressive religious types can geek out by wondering about sample size and methodology. Something for everyone.”  I can’t speak to the quality of the research, though I’m told it’s a peer reviewed study, which counts for something. On the other hand, Robert tells me that half of all psychological studies are unreplicatable, so…

But assuming this study is accurate, what would account for a lack of generosity in religious children? Not sure. For the record, I don’t think you need to have a religious tradition or belief in God to be a moral person. And at the same time, there is a strain of judgmentalism in some expressions of Christianity, and apparently Islam too, since that was also mentioned in the study.

But I do have one small hypothesis.

For the past several months, our family has been between churches. Since I finished my tenure at Tiny Church, we haven’t found a church to call home. I may preach in 2-3 congregations a month, but many of these are in other cities, so the kids don’t come with me.

During these months without a church, I’ve been keenly aware that it’s my job and Robert’s job–and pretty much ours alone–to teach generosity and kindness as spiritual practices. I say “as spiritual practices” because to some extent they also learn these attributes at school, during team sports and in other activities. But there’s usually no deeper meaning underlying them–it’s just the way you treat people.

Anyway, if this is our job and ours alone, we will want to approach it with great intentionality and care. Whereas parents who are religious may be relying on their faith communities to do a lot of this work. I used to hear this often from parents when I was a pastor–they rarely felt equipped to pass on the tenets of their faith to their children, and really hoped the church would do it instead.

Yet we know from study after study that parents are their children’s most important teachers. Which means that if parents are relying on faith communities to do this work, then the work isn’t getting done nearly as effectively.

What do you make of the study?


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photo credit: lone kid (6 of 8) via photopin (license)

Building a Bike Shed Out of Starbucks Cups: Beyond the #WarOnChristmas


The other day I vented on Facebook,

November 8 and I’m already tired of the War on Christmas. No, not the people who are upset by Starbucks cups and Happy Holidays. The people who are upset with those people and compelled to post about it. I’m declaring war on the war on the War on Christmas.

My tongue was firmly in cheek (that last sentence! Come on!), but still, there have been a number of of blogs and FB posts, reposted and shared widely, decrying the outrage over Starbucks’s red cups and companies that say “Happy Holidays.” For the record, I agree with my colleagues that cries of persecution are juvenile and beside the point of Christianity. Most of them are clever, thoughtful and well written.

The problem is–and granted I am in a lefty Christian bubble too much–the reaction to the so-called War on Christmas seems way outsized to the controversy itself. Thus far the “War” seems to amount to a handful of articles, most of which mention the same 3-4 Christian leaders or groups, then sprinkle in quotes from various cranks with Twitter accounts.

I don’t doubt there are people who are offended by what they see as the secularization of the Christmas season. What I question is my tribe’s tendency to go straight to smackdown. Especially since this happens like clockwork every year. Must we do this?

I include myself in this question. Yeah, I didn’t jump on this particular bandwagon, but I’ve jumped on plenty in my day, and I have the limp and the hearing loss to prove it.

The critiques of the War on Christmas (what I called the war on the War on Christmas) legitimize a perspective that frankly doesn’t deserve legitimacy. (Telling your barista your name is Merry Christmas to force them to say those words? Really?!?) But more important, it amounts to building a bike shed. Which is what this post is really about.

Back in the 1950s, C. Northcote Parkinson identified the bike-shed problem, which has come to be known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. In a nutshell:

A management committee decides to approve a nuclear power plant, which it does with little argument or deliberation.  Then comes the decision on the color of the bike shed at the plant, during which the management gets into a nit-picking debate and expends far more time and energy than on the nuclear power plant decision.

Or put another way, the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic.

Anyone who’s ever served on a church council will recognize this, though it goes way beyond the church. This is the discussion about the color of the carpet in the parlor instead of why the church is dying, or the color of the corporate logo instead of the toxic office culture.

Red cups are easy. #Blacklivesmatter is complex. Westboro Church is easy. Syria is complex. We don’t always have to tackle complex issues on social media. But nor should we be seduced by stuff that really, really doesn’t matter. Again, I am writing to myself as much as anyone else. Please hold me to this.

Hopefully by now the red cup kerfuffle is waning. But other potential “battles” will come–it’s only November 10. I’d personally like to see us not jump into critiques of the War on Christmas. Not because there’s nothing to critique–there is. But because it’s too easy. I also suspect there are powers out there that benefit from our outrage and our division. If nothing else, this has been free publicity for Starbucks, whose coffee and red cups I enjoy–but it’s a multinational corporation that frankly doesn’t need our signal boost.


Image courtesy of my friend Meredith Kemp-Pappan. 

Monday Runday: “Retuning” to Running

Returning to Running following an Injury

And I’m finally back to it.

Last Wednesday morning, I got up veeeeeeeeeery early to drive down to Springfield to run with a bunch of my 5 a.m. mama runners. I knew I wanted to be with them for my first run back. They’ve been such treasured friends over the past year, I knew I wanted to celebrate my return from injury with them.

And if it didn’t go well–if the stress fracture site flared up–well, I’d need them there for Mental Health Watch.

It’s been a long 12 weeks.

Thankfully, everything went fine and I’ve run twice since then. Half a mile each time, plus about a mile of walking, with a day of rest in between each workout.

I’ve got all this pent-up energy (and I’m soooo sick of the pool and the bike) that I want to go full-out. I’m eager to get back to my previous fitness level. It’s humbling to go from 120 miles a month to maybe 10.

Plus the fall has been gorgeous.

Returning to Running Following Injury

View from my back patio


Returning to Running Following Injury

When I was researching how to train safely following a stress fracture, I ran across an article with a typo in the title. It should have said “returning to running” but it said “retuning.” That seemed right though. Like a musical instrument that’s fallen out of tune, or a car in need of some TLC.

In theory, the body mends a stress fracture stronger than before. Assuming you’re healed, you shouldn’t get re-injured in the same spot. But the rest of the body compensates for the hurt place, and that can cause its own problems. Whatever precipitated your injury in the first place needs to be tended to as well.

So I’m returning, and retuning. For me that means continuing to cross train, incorporating more strength work, and at least for now, not running more than three days a week.

What are you retuning these days?

Three Reasons Why “Because It’s 2015″ Is So Brilliant


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put together the most diverse cabinet in his country’s history. Not only does the cabinet have gender parity, but it features two aboriginal politicians, two persons with disabilities, and three Sikhs. It’s also the youngest cabinet than any past administration.

When asked why having a gender-balanced cabinet was important to him, Trudeau said, “Because it’s 2015.” My friend Michael called it “the mic drop moment of the political season.”

Predictably, there are people who are crying about quotas, and criticizing Trudeau for passing over qualified [white male?] candidates out of political correctness run amok. To that I say psssshhhh. For three reasons:

  1. The wisdom of crowds depends on a diverse crowd. If you’ve read James Surowiecki’s book with that title, you know that large groups of people are surprisingly good at arriving at the right answer on things. (That’s the poll-the-audience option on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.) BUT, that crowd needs to be as diverse as possible, in order to correct for biases and blind spots. All other things being equal, Trudeau’s cabinet will be wiser than one in which everyone comes from the same background, even if that background happens to be exemplary.
  2. It matters that people see leaders who look like them. My little niece saw a picture of Hillary Clinton recently and asked who it was. My brother said, “That’s Hillary Clinton, she’s running for President.” My niece stared rapt at the picture and said, “I want a woman president.” Ultimately Clinton will have to earn our votes, or not. But seeing people who look like you, especially when you’re young and dreaming of what’s possible for yourself, is huge. (And let’s face it, there are still plenty of old white men in Trudeau’s cabinet.)
  3. It acknowledges that in a complex world, there is rarely a single “right” or “best” option. When people argue against, say, affirmative action, they often complain that the [white, male, whatever] candidate gets passed over for an unqualified or less-qualified [minority, woman, whatever] candidate. This strikes me as a very old fashioned notion. In a world as complicated as ours, once you weed out people who are clearly not qualified, you may be left with multiple qualified candidates, albeit with different skills and backgrounds. This happens in college admissions–if a school admits 500 students, there’s probably going to be very little difference between candidate 500 and 501. That’s an uncomfortable truth if you’re #501, but it’s simply the reality. The idea that there is one and only one clear answer seems very romantic, like believing there’s one soul mate out there for everyone. Eh. Not really. Instead there are flawed people who measure up to one another like apples and oranges, so you have to be rational and discerning, but ultimately trust your judgment. Or put another way:

Why indeed?