Category Archives: Ministry

A Christian without a Church

The other day our nine year old came home from school with a coin collection box for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “Do you have any coins, Mommy?” she asked, and I sent her upstairs to raid the plastic jug on our dresser. The cardboard bank is now sitting on our kitchen table.

What’s not on our table? One of these:

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For you non-Presbyterians, that’s one of the infamous “fish banks” handed out to children in church during Lent. These are turned in as part of the One Great Hour of Sharing, collected on Palm Sunday or Easter and benefiting disaster assistance, hunger relief, and self-development of people.

In terms of church attendance, our family is nomadic at the moment. That, plus some crazy Sunday morning weather recently that impacted church attendance, means we didn’t receive a bank.

It feels strange not to have a bank, but not for the reason I might have thought. Yes, a fish bank is a connection to a particular Presbyterian community, and sustained action is important, and we can do more together than separately. This I believe. But it also feels strange because it’s not strange at all. In fact, there are abundant opportunities to share my resources, all around me, all the time. And whenever I give, whether it’s to the church or the American Cancer Society, I do so out of my Christian values. (Others share their resources out of their own values as well, which may not be Christian or even religious at all. So much the better.)

I’m glimpsing some of what Barbara Brown Taylor talks about in Altar in the World when she talks about people seeing God show up in places they never expected to. I always knew this. Now I’m experiencing it first-hand. To be clear: once we land in a local congregation, we will support that congregation financially. But this nomadic period is reminding me that even though I am a Christian, I don’t need the church in order to give to organizations who do mission, charity and justice.

My running group takes up collections for food pantries and Toys for Tots. My email box is full of appeals from organizations I believe in and support when I can. My children’s schools have clothing drives. Friends are running and walking various events and I am supporting them. I can give $10 simply by sending a text message, not unlike throwing some extra cash in the offering plate when the Spirit moves. Opportunities to give are folded into every facet of my life.

Some church folk might balk and say that this leads to a scattershot approach, that there’s no substitute for sustained collective action. Yes. But a lot of crowd-funding and peer-to-peer fundraising is communal–it’s friends asking friends to learn about a cause and join in with the contribution of funds. Maybe the church does the sustained part better than some. But even that can be present without the church.

I was at a workshop on financial stewardship in the church a few years ago. The speaker is one of the respected names in this field and is helping all kinds of people think more creatively about giving and yes, fundraising, in a way that gets beyond outdated ideas of duty and institutional maintenance. During a break, a colleague told him she was thinking about editing her church’s pledge cards to include a place to (voluntarily) share of the giving people do beyond the church. The idea is, when we collect those cards in worship we should be lifting up prayers for all of our giving, not just the giving we offer to the congregation.

My ears perked up because this is something I’ve thought about too. (As another friend says, “The congregation ends up becoming a money-laundering organization for other charities. Let the people give directly to them!”) To my surprise, the stewardship guru rejected the idea: “You want to encourage church giving. Bringing in these other organizations just muddies the waters.”

Lots of us are thinking missionally these days. The church is not a location but a people–a sent people. Wherever we are, that’s where the church is. If that’s true–if we really believe that–should we not encourage a lifestyle of giving to all kinds of organizations, not just the church? And what is at stake if we don’t? If we feel that giving to a local congregation is paramount, is that a sign that we’re only intent on our own survival? Or are there larger theological issues at play?

A Pastor without a Congregation

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“Welcome to outside the dome, Traveler. We have been waiting for you.”

Of all the messages I received on my last day of pastoral ministry, this may be my favorite.

I’ve been a pastor for the better part of twelve years, and worked in parish ministry for a good six years before that. The only thing that’s lasted longer in my adult life is my marriage. Until Adam asked me to write for this series, I hadn’t thought much about pastoral identity because for a long time now, pastor=me and me=pastor.

That doesn’t mean I had no life outside of pastoral ministry. Nor does it suggest that I approach my everyday life all “ministered up.” I mean it more in the sense of seeking congruence in my professional and personal identity. I want to be the same person in the pulpit as I am with the swim team carpool—though there are obviously different expectations and norms in each place.

Now I’m a pastor without a congregation.

READ THE REST at Adam Walker Cleaveland’s blog Pomomusings. And check out his whole series on pastoral identity.

A Sermon for Every Sunday: A Resource for Small Churches

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One of the reasons I’m drawn to NEXT Church is an awareness that we need to be both honest and creative about the cultural shifts affecting all of us, including the church. The same-old same-old is not going to work in sharing good news with a world that needs it. Everything is on the table: staffing models, leadership, building or no building, schedules and activities. And I think we need to try everything as we live toward a renewed mission in our time and place.

I met Jim Somerville, a pastor in Richmond, at the Festival of Homiletics this spring, and here’s his contribution to this spirit of experimentation: A Sermon for Every Sunday. There are tons of small churches out there who are doing great ministry, but who lack the resources to call a pastor. Jim has brought together preachers from around the country to record sermons for each Sunday of the year. These sermons can be purchased for a nominal fee and then played on a screen or a TV set, in worship or at other church gatherings.

Good preachers know that good sermons are contextual—they speak to a particular people in a particular time. Jim understands this as well, and envisions these sermons as the beginning of proclamation, not the entirety of it. So he encourages congregations to watch the sermon and then talk about it how it connects to their lives and ministries, perhaps guided by an elder or other church leader. Why not?

Churchy folk, I invite you to spread the word to colleagues who might be interested in it. And I look forward to seeing how A Sermon for Every Sunday takes hold as a resource, especially in smaller churches!

Help People Transitioning from Homelessness. Receive the Gift of Music

 

FullSizeRenderTwo years ago my daughters decided they wanted to do something to help people in our community who are homeless. We set up a fundraiser whereby people donated to Homestretch, a wonderful organization here in Fairfax County, and in exchange folks received various thank you gifts from Caroline and Margaret. We raised close to $1,000 for Homestretch, thanks to the girls’ hard work and your generosity. In fact, I met with staff of Homestretch recently, and they specifically remembered the little girls who gave their time and talent to help people who are transitioning from homelessness to a more stable life.

After a hiatus from this project last year, the girls want to do it again. Caroline and Margaret will be putting together another collection of holiday music, but rather than CDs we’re going completely digital this year. Everyone who gives (regardless of amount) will receive a link for downloading the songs to iTunes or other mp3 system. We’ve got a lot more instruments in the mix this year—voice and piano, but also cello, guitar, recorder, maybe even ukelele. Caroline has also gotten a little more experience with GarageBand, so who knows what they’ll come up with!

Here’s how it works:

1. Make a donation of any amount to one of the organizations listed below.

2. Email me at maryannmcdana (at) gmail (dot) com and let me know of your donation, preferably with a screen shot of the donation page.

3. Once the album is finished, we will email you the link for download. We hope to complete it by December 22, so you’ll have time to put it in your holiday rotation! If you give $50 or more, we will also send the link to a friend of your choosing as a gift from you, dressed up in a nice festive email describing your gift.

Here are the organizations. Two to choose from!

  • Homestretch, Inc. – serving people in Northern Virginia
  • Love Wins Ministries — Love Wins is actually based in Raleigh, but I’ve gotten to know the pastor and director, Hugh Hollowell, via social media. Love Wins operates on grace and a shoestring, and does amazing work both with advocacy and as a ministry of presence. The girls wanted to add Love Wins after I told them about David, Ashley, and Baby Liberty. Liberty is due to be born very soon after Ashley’s water broke at 30 weeks. They have a long list of needs—please give what you can to Love Wins or to help this struggling family.

Thank you in advance for your generosity and for helping Caroline and Margaret make a difference.

On Praying for the Rapture

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The movie Left Behind came and went last month. Did you miss it? Oh no! Well come January, you’ll be able to catch it on DVD, which may be entertaining just to see what kind of movie garners a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 2%. Ouch.

For anyone unaware of the mega-bestselling books, the Left Behind series is a fanciful account of the rapture, which is a strain of end-times theology based on a misreading of I Thessalonians. The idea is that the righteous people will be carried up to heaven so that God can come down and open a can of whupa** on the unbelievers.

(I have a pastor friend with a parishioner who believed in the rapture… he was always tempted to go to her house with a set of clothes, lay them out flat on her porch, ring the doorbell and run. Thus proving that if the rapture were a real thing, he’d be one of the heathens left behind, eh? Along with yours truly, since I crack up every time I picture it.)

Rapture theology is not a big part of my tradition. I know Presbyterians who’ve read the Left Behind books, but generally they read them as entertaining fiction, not as sound biblical interpretation. Because they aren’t.

Still, I am tempted to pray for the rapture… at least, a rapture of a sort.

In my work with NEXT Church, and having been a colleague to many folks in ministry these 11 years, and as a pastor of a small church, I know a huge number of congregations that are struggling with aging facilities they can no longer afford. Rather than being tools for ministry, these buildings are money and energy pits.

As for Tiny Church, we’re blessed with a functional building that’s the right size for us, an absence of debt, and an endowment we can use when repairs or capital improvements are needed. And still, we have been locked in conversations for a long time about what to do with our aging kitchen and aged building. I had my fifth anniversary at Tiny last month, and these conversations predate me. We are an engaged congregation with many strong leaders, but we lack the capacity to do progressive, forward-thinking ministry AND make these upgrades. It’s a burden—and it’s a burden thousands of congregations share.

So, I daydream. I daydream that all the church buildings would be raptured, leaving behind the communities of faith who used to inhabit them, who would then be compelled to ask themselves, “Who are we without these buildings? What do we now have the capacity to do that we didn’t before?”

A colleague serving a small congregation, burdened by a large unwieldy building, said a number of years ago, “Sometimes I pray that the building would burn down.” She was only half kidding. I know churches that have burned and rebuilt. One hopes and assumes that these new buildings are right-sized for the resources of the congregation, and better reflect the ministry as it is now. But building rapture would be better. Because there’s no building-rapture insurance that I’m aware of. There would be no payout from GuideOne or State Farm. There would be no new organ to replace the old one, no brand-spanking new facility that is a great tool for ministry now but has a decent chance of being a millstone for the congregation of 50 years from now.

There would be a tremendous period of grief, of course. Buildings are sacred spaces and containers for memory. And there would be congregations who peter out, maybe because they lack the vision for a church without a building, or because they realize that the building was the only thing that united them.

But some churches would find ways to move forward. They would rent spaces and meet in homes, schools and businesses. They would discover gifts and capacities they never knew they had.