Category Archives: Ministry

Improv in Action: Guest Post from Marthame Sanders

1-faith-450x300I met Marthame Sanders a couple of years ago at an event at Columbia Seminary. Since then we’ve followed one another on Facebook and shared a mutual interest in improv and the spiritual life. Marthame was lucky enough to receive a sabbatical grant last summer which allowed him to study improv at Second City. Right now I’m working on a grant application for a similar purpose myself, but in the meantime, it’s great fun to see what Marthame and others are doing to encourage an improvisational “posture” in worship and think about how to expand those skills into the larger church. (Church of the Pilgrims in DC is also doing great work in this–see Ashley Goff’s blog for more.)

Marthame wrote recently on his blog about an anthem the congregation composed in the middle of worship. So rad. I especially love the acknowledgement that while there are many more polished, technically “perfect” pieces of worship music out there, there’s something powerful about creating something right in the moment. And it sounds like he provided just enough structure for this creative work to happen.

Thanks for sharing this inspiration, Marthame!!

~

An Improvised Anthem–guest blog by Marthame Sanders

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

~

Marthame Sanders is pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. His 2014 Sabbatical in Chicago focused on the intersection of Spirit, creativity, and improvisation, including classes at the Second City Training Center. Since returning to Atlanta, he has continued with classes at Dad’s Garage and has incorporated improv exercises into congregational leadership training. His website is www.marthame.com.

On Being a Nerd Pastor

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A while back I led a retreat with some United Church of Christ pastors and asked them the icebreaker question, “What’s saving your life right now?” (Thank you for that, Barbara Brown Taylor.) One of the women said, “Just a few more days until I get to go to Comic Con!”

Pastors are naturally bookish sorts–in many cases, our training involves an advanced degree, often including the study of ancient languages. But I meet a lot of pastors who are also interested in things that have been traditionally classified as nerd/geek things: comic books, cosplay, science fiction/fantasy, and so forth. I haven’t quite parsed whether pastors are more nerdy overall, or my pastoral circles happen to trend that way, or whether the culture at large is becoming more embracing of nerd culture, or at least, diversifying enough that nerds can find one another.

The other day I posted to Twitter that I was thinking about writing an article about nerd pastors. Who do I need to talk to? I asked… and was flooded with responses. One person said, “@RevHez1 has been working on a theory that fandom = ekklesia.” Another sent me a keynote address he’d offered to a group of pastoral counselors called “Confessions of an American Nerd.” Aric Clark has his LectionARIC YouTube channel that promises to meld scripture with pop culture/”geeky” content. There’s the Church of the Geek podcast. There’s GeekdomHouse, which has this to say on its About page:

Our belief is that by engaging and participating in all aspects of life—physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual— we can strengthen and enrich communities that already exist through our love of geekery. George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis are prime examples of people who contributed excellence to the community while allowing for things like faith, ethics, and creativity to interact with one another.

Tolkien and Lewis: serious church nerds.

From time to time, the annual gathering for NEXT Church (which I co-chaired for two years) gets called “the cool kids conference.” This always makes me laugh, because in my entire life, I have never been cool.

That said, I sometimes hold off on calling myself a nerd/geek. Not because I’m too cool for that, because see above, but because nerd/geek sometimes implies a level of knowledge I don’t feel I can claim. I love the Lord of the Rings movies, and have preached sermons on them, but I couldn’t make it through the books. I love a good superhero blockbuster (and preached a series called “Parables and Pop Culture,” which included two weeks on comic book superheroes) but I don’t read comic books myself.

But is nerddom about a specific body of knowledge, or is it an orientation? Glen Weldon, a frequent panelist on Pop Culture Happy Hour and author of Superman, The Unauthorized Biography, is writing a book about nerd culture through the lens of Batman fandom. He says the basic quality of the nerd is enthusiasm–a pure joy that makes you want to delve deep into your particular area of interest. Nerds aren’t posers–those people who scoff when “everyone” has discovered the obscure band, TV show or book that they loved and considered special because it was obscure and quirky. Nerds want to share the object of their enthusiasm with the world. Operating under that definition, incidentally, we need more nerd pastors in the church.

What do you think? Where do you see intersections between nerddom/geekdom, spirituality and faith?

~

Image is from XKCD.

On Caitlyn Jenner, and Pastoring a Transgender Person

150601-caitlyn-jenner-jsw-1240p_f905633d5cc73c24b5c0da7bc2ade414.nbcnews-fp-1200-800The Internet is awash with reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s photos in Vanity Fair magazine. Some thoughtful stuff, and plenty that’s predictably… less than thoughtful. I write this post with some trepidation, because there’s still much for me to learn, and I hope those who have walked this road will offer correction with a generous spirit, for it’s in that spirit that I write this. This tip sheet from GLAAD is helpful.

I had the opportunity to provide pastoral support to someone as she made a male-to-female transition. Her story is hers to tell, but this is a little of mine as I walked with her. (She was not on the membership rolls of any church I served. I say that to protect her identity and so people don’t go wondering and digging. I’ll call her Jade.)

I felt this person’s anguish as we met over a period of months. It seems hard enough to be gay or lesbian, to go against society’s default expectations and perhaps one’s upbringing, to experience discrimination and sometimes harassment. But to be transgender–for one’s body not to conform to what one knows so deeply to be true of oneself–seems a particularly tough burden. Violence against transgender people is proportionally high. For many (though not all) transgender people, the answer is surgery, or as I learned, surgeries. And of course, these procedures are expensive and very involved, and thus out of reach for many people.

The person I met with asked me over and over again, “Am I a mistake? Does God make mistakes?” As someone who tries to be not only a straight ally, but a straight Christian ally, these questions felt important and agonizing. I read up on Christian resources for transgender people, and we talked a lot about Jesus’ ministry with society’s “misfits and outcasts.” We read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, which to me is a clear sign that grace is a gift offered to sexual minorities too. Mainly I told her that the God I believe in loves us all unconditionally and wants shalom–wholeness–for us all.

The first time we met, when she was still contemplating a physical transition and what it might mean, I prayed for her by name—her female name. When she raised her head her eyes were filled with tears. “I am Jade. That’s who I am.”

I’ll be honest. It didn’t feel comfortable—I previously knew this person by a male name. But it was right. And this is what we do as pastors, isn’t it? It’s not about our own comfort. It’s about naming the grace of God that we are all living toward. It’s about claiming the abundant life that Jesus promises.

And Jade claimed that abundant life. It wasn’t easy and it still isn’t. Loved ones don’t always get it. Family systems are complicated. But when I saw her after one of her surgeries, I couldn’t believe the transformation. I’m not talking about breast augmentation and a reduced Adam’s apple. I’m talking about the peace that radiated from every pore. I’m talking about the way she carried herself. I’m talking about the carefree smile she gave me. You’d have to be blind not to see it.

Maybe, maybe, my prayer in which I invoked her new name was a gift to her. But that last meeting we had was a gift to me, because I saw wholeness and transformation in the flesh. I still don’t understand being transgender. Is it a quirk of evolutionary biology? But I don’t have to understand it. My job is to point to abundant life, and then to celebrate as Jade and others seek to embody it.

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s a saying, “Happy, joyous and free.” The gospel isn’t the gospel unless it moves us toward happy, joyous and free. That’s all I know.

They Wrote a Thing and It’s Awesome: A Review of #WomanInThePulpit

51EX8kPEJjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ten years ago this summer, RevGalBlogPals was born. It began as a loose collection of pastor-bloggers, mostly women, mostly pseudonymous (as was the custom at the time). We began, as all good things begin, with a T-shirt.

Now, RevGalBlogPals is a global network, with conferences, events, meetups, a burgeoning Facebook community, and a director, the Rev. Martha Spong, who is the editor of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments and the Healing Power of Humor.

One of the nagging regrets of the last year is letting the deadline for submitting essays to this collection pass me by. Given my life at the time, it couldn’t be avoided, but after getting to know so many of these women over the past decade, I’m sad not to be a part of this project.

But having their words on my shelf is a gracious plenty.

This book is stuffed full of 50 essays on life, death, the unique gifts and challenges of being women in ministry, and the things they don’t teach in seminary. The essays are the perfect length for picking up the book and putting it down in the midst of a busy life, or reading one selection a week for an entire year, or revisiting them again and again, which I’m sure I’ll do.

I’m still making my way through the book, but there are so many favorites. Kathryn Johnston writes an incisive piece about double standards between men and women in leadership in the sharply-titled “Balls.” Later in the book, Stephanie Anthony’s essay provides a good companion to Kathryn’s as she describes the feeling of not being “one of the guys,” but realizing it’s important to be present for the little girls who are watching us step into leadership.

Deborah Lewis considers “The Weight of Ash” and the full depth of what is many pastors’ favorite church observances, Ash Wednesday. Rachel Hackenberg offers a couple different selections, but “A Prayer for the Plunger” was a personal favorite: “As you eavesdrop on the church council’s argument over new carpet, do you remember your debate with the Pleiades over the color of grass?”

Robin Craig’s essay on how she learned to preach the gospel following her son’s death by suicide is worth the price of the book. Patricia Raube’s glorious meditation about coming out to her congregation brought tears to my eyes. Love wins, people.

And editor Martha’s essays and section headings provide a gracious glue for the book. (I now “see” the RevGals logo in a whole new way!)

You know what though… those are my favorites right now. The beauty of a book like this is that favorites will change as life changes.

I hope you’ll check out this wonderful book. Congratulations to everyone who was a part of it.

~

The title refers to a catchphrase during that first miraculous Big Event, where many RevGals met for the first time: We made a thing and it’s awesome.

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:

OGHS_Fish_Bank_2007

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?