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A Sharp Intake of Breath

The steeple of First Presbyterian, Houston

The steeple of First Presbyterian and a beautiful Houston sky

This happened yesterday:

An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body… The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston voted narrowly on Sunday to remain with the Presbyterian Church USA over a breakaway evangelical denomination. The alternative denomination — A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO — advocates a stricter interpretation of the Bible and prohibits openly gay clergy.

A supermajority (67%) was required for the congregation to leave the PCUSA. They fell just 36 votes short, with about 64.5% voting to leave. What this means is that despite a comfortable majority wanting to leave, they’re staying put.

Close votes are painful in the church. I know many people, from all over the theological spectrum, who are praying for First Pres, regardless of whether we see eye to eye with them on biblical interpretation. I don’t agree with First Presbyterian Church’s leadership on many issues. I agree with them that the PCUSA has changed, but I don’t agree that they (we) have strayed from the fundamentals. We are body of Christians who are “reformed, and always being reformed.”

But the congregation does good ministry too. And I feel for them wholeheartedly.

64.5%. Man.

They will either find a way to move forward together, or they will split. And that hurts.

I’ll be returning to the PCUSA’s General Assembly this summer, this time as a commissioner (I’ve been an observer a few times). As I think about what we’ll be doing in Detroit, I think about the many church votes I’ve witnessed and taken part in. I remember a GA vote to overturn our denomination’s ordination standards prohibiting lesbian and gay clergy and officers. The vote was close. Very close. When the results flashed on the screen, there was a sharp intake of breath. There almost always is in close votes. (It’s right up there with the murmur that people make when someone shares a powerful story—not quite an Amen, I call it the Presbyterian Moo.)

Now, the gasp at a close vote can mean a lot of things—relief on the part the “winning side,” lament from those who lost so narrowly. But in the church, it’s also an expression of pain that we are not of one mind and heart on significant issues. The gasp is a realization that change, when it happens, is so hotly contested, yet so incremental. And yes, it’s a sympathetic cry of pain even from those whose point of view prevailed.

It’s hard for some people outside the church to understand that. The non-religious people I know, for whom the full humanity of LGBT persons is indisputable, sometimes find it puzzling that we’d be hurting for a congregation that wants to leave our denomination in part because of their apparent unwillingness to embrace that full humanity. “How are you not condoning bigotry?” they ask me.

First, I don’t find the label productive. It’s a non-starter.

Second, and more important: that sharp intake of breath is part of our witness. It’s not our only one: I expect that marriage equality will come to the PCUSA this summer, or perhaps two years from now, and rather than being a departure from our fundamentals, I personally see that as a faithful expression of them. And that action will be, I hope, a witness to the world.

But that sharp intake of breath matters too. In a world where we “like” Facebook statuses that we agree with, only ensuring that we see more of the same—in a world where cable news and blogs tell us exactly what we want to hear—in a world where narcissistic trolls have taken over internet comments such that meaningful back-and-forth debate is an endangered species—our unity in the Holy Spirit, in the bonds of peace, is a witness too.

The Case of the Disappearing Staff

There’s a lot of talk about what kind of staff the “next church” will need to have. As budgets and membership rolls shrink, fewer churches will be able to afford a pastor, and more pastors will work part-time. Programmatic and support positions will shrink and be taken over by volunteers. The hope is always for churches to have the right-sized staff… and it’s not the staff’s job to do the ministry of the church, but to support the members and friends of the community as they engage in ministry.

At Tiny Church, our staff is minimal: part-time pastor, part-time administrative assistant who works two half-days a week, organist/choir director who works Sunday mornings (plus preparation time), and a custodian. We also have two nursery workers who look after the kids on alternating Sundays during worship. I’m thankful for every one of these folks, all of whom do this work on top of other full-time jobs.

As a small church, the largest share of our congregation’s budget goes to staff, which can make the budget tricky to interpret for folks. This year during stewardship season, we decided to have a little fun while highlighting all the behind-the-scenes work our staff does. We riffed on the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Remember the alternate universe in which George Bailey had never been born? We put together a story (accompanied with photos) in which the the church suddenly found itself without any staff. Here’s a small taste, but suffice to say that hijinks ensued!

For example, without a nursery worker, things got a little out of hand.

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How did James pull off that naughty expression so effortlessly?

Without a pastor to preach, other folks had to fill in as they were able.

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(This one should and does happen from time to time, by the way. Indeed, I sometimes  think the pastor is the most expendable person on a church staff…)

But without an administrative assistant, the mail got all messed up and the electric bill didn’t get paid. Brrrr!

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Then there was the missing organist. Well, you can see people made do the best they could:

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In a church our size, money is always a topic of conversation. We are trying to have the mindset of a rich church rather than a poor one. Part of that mindset is to approach these topics with a light heart. On a personal level, I’m tickled that these people (and more who are not featured here) were willing to get their pictures taken doing silly things, often without knowing why.

Working for Free… in the Church

Tim Kreider recently made a splash on the New York Times with his opinion piece, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” Here is the gist:

Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.

Kreider goes on to explain that people soliciting free labor promise the writer or artist that she will receive “exposure” instead, thus increasing her audience. Kreider’s view, however, is that venues offering decent exposure are often those that can afford to pay. In his article, he offers a template for graciously declining such offers to work for free, and also admits that there are times when pro bono work is perfectly OK: to help out a friend, or to support a cause one believes in. But freebie work can get out of hand, and after all, writers are professionals and deserve to be treated as such.

There’s a lot of stuff wrapped up in this article:

  • an undervaluing of creative work and/or the view that “anyone” can write, design a website, etc.
  • the sheer proliferation of writing and artistic endeavors, especially on the Internet, much of which is given away for free… so why should we pay YOU for your work? What makes you so special?
  • the sense that artists and writers are so passionate about their work—that they would “do it for free”—that they can be asked to give away their stuff.

Being in the church adds another layer to all of this. As a pastor, I know that most churches aren’t exactly flush with cash. And that “help out a friend/believe in the cause” stuff that Kreider talks about? In the church, that’s baked right in. We aren’t just friends, we’re brothers and sisters in Christ! Yikes! And belief in the mission? One would certainly hope so.

Besides, we ask all kinds of people to offer their gifts to the church for free: gardeners tend the lawn, amateur electricians do minor repairs. But we have to be careful we’re not taking advantage of people who depend on such skills for their bread and butter.

I really like NEXT Church‘s policy on this. We are getting ready for our fourth national gathering in Minneapolis next spring (which by the way is going to be OUTSTANDING). We are a lean, nascent, grassroots organization, with one paid staff person who works out of her house. When it comes to speakers for our big events, we invite people to come and share their expertise as a way of fulfilling their ordination vow to “be a friend to our colleagues in ministry.” However, there are two important caveats:

1. We cover their travel and lodging expenses, so at least the experience doesn’t cost them anything.

2. If a person is a so-called tentmaker, i.e. if speaking at conferences is a part of how she makes a living, we will offer an honorarium.

I think this policy has integrity. I also know that the Wild Goose Festival got off the ground by asking its speakers and leaders to give their time the first year (not sure about the second year). And they had BIG names who took them up on it.

Gender stuff is wrapped up in this too. For all its limitations, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In continues to have an impact on a lot of women I talk to. Friends who write and speak are constantly struggling with negotiating speaking fees that honor their experience and expertise yet are within the reach of a congregation or judicatory’s budget. I know women who presented at a conference only to discover that they received a lower honorarium than the men at the same event. I know women who give their time and gifts for free because their family’s economic situation is such that they don’t need the money. I know others who work for free, hoping the volunteer work will transition to something for pay.

I don’t have a pithy conclusion to this. Just wondering what other people’s experiences are. And I’m glad Tim Kreider raised the issue. (By the way, I’ve used his article The Busy Trap in numerous retreats and workshops, so I owe him a debt. Hmm… maybe I owe him some cash too.)

Fixing What’s (Not?) Broken

One of the guiding principles of NEXT Church is a focus on healthy congregations. That’s what drives us, rather than an ideological or theological agenda. A big part of our focus is to identify, celebrate and support places of health in our denomination so that they can propagate.

But what does health look like? How do we know it when we see it? And what about churches that are currently struggling?

As a co-chair of NEXT, this is something our strategy team thinks about a lot. I think we all know (or serve) churches that are struggling, but that have a lot of potential—potential to transform, potential to be a vibrant witness to Jesus Christ in their neighborhood, potential to grow in depth or breadth of ministry. Maybe they need a little inspiration, or somehopeful connection with colleagues, or a burst of energy and new ideas that comes from, say, a kick-butt conference.

But we also know that countless churches will close their doors over the next several decades.

Read the rest at the NEXT Church website.

The Hour Has Come: A Sermon for NEXT Church

Cross-posted at the NEXT Church website.

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

I was honored to preach at the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley at their stated meeting on May 9, 2013. It was a bit of an introduction to NEXT Church. I share it here in hopes that others will find it a helpful taste of what we’re about: 

 

The Hour Has Come

John 2:1-11 

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

medium_475424169Many preachers I know have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John. The Jesus in John is just so muscular. I don’t mean that in the sense of brawny, I mean… he’s so capable. Confident. Free of angst. Every move he makes is deliberate. There is no sweating blood in the garden in John, no cry of anguish on the cross, no “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” (Yes, he does say “I’m thirsty,” but John is quick to assure us: He didn’t really need a drink; he just said that to fulfill the scriptures.)

This is a man who knows what he’s doing at every moment. And that’s a comforting thing. But it’s also what makes John’s Jesus really hard to relate to. Jesus is never, ever caught off guard.

Except… here. Here, in this story, we get a little bit of a different picture than the Jesus we meet in most of John. He seems caught a bit off guard. Plus, this is Jesus’ first sign, and it feels different from the others. There are seven in all, and in case you need a review, here they are in no particular order:

–       Walking on water.

–       Three healings.

–       Feeding 5,000 people with the contents of a child’s picnic.

–       Raising a guy from the dead.

–       And… restocking the bar at a wedding.

One of these signs is not like the other.

*          *          *

Jesus’ mother comes to him: “They have no more wine.” It’s a statement… that’s really a question. A request. And Jesus gets that, because he responds to what remains unsaid: No mother, that is not my concern. This is not mine to do.

Mary is saying to him, Look… here is an opportunity.

And Jesus responds: Really? Beverage service? For my inaugural sign? I don’t think so. Anyway, my hour has not yet come.

And she turns toward everyone else: Do what he tells you. And again there is a subtext: Yes, your hour has come. You are needed, right now, right here.

I love that Jesus’ first sign is one he never intended to make.

Jesus, it seems, had a plan. He had something in mind for his first sign. I’m not sure what he hoped his first sign would be, but water into wine wasn’t it. I bet it was something great. Maybe he was planning to heal an entire household in one fell swoop. Maybe a nice juicy exorcism. Later he would walk on water; maybe he was going to kick things off by flying through the air like Superman.

But instead he realizes that when it comes to sign #1… mother does know best. And of course, it’s not just about the wine—it’s about hospitality, it’s about providing something amazing for a whole village of people. It’s about God’s abundance. So yes, he’s in.

He looks around: What’s here that I can use? He scopes out his provisions like some kind of Palestinian MacGyver, and he finds 6 water jars.

Uh-oh. Six.

You remember the number 7 as a holy number in scripture. It is a number of perfection, completion. The seven days of creation. Seventh day as the day of rest. Seven signs in the gospel of John, seven churches in the book of Revelation.

But there are only 6 jars. Not good. In the ancient world, 6 was not a holy number. Far from it. Six was seen as a deficient number, imperfect, lacking. So we can see why Jesus would be reluctant to act—wine from seven jars would be a fabulously meaningful sign, dripping with significance. But the tools aren’t right. Things aren’t quite right. Six jars is somehow not enough.

I serve a small congregation in Northern Virginia that has grown from about 70 to about 85 in the last few years. We rejoice at this growth. And we are grateful to have a number of things going for us. We own our building; it’s not too big for us, not too overwhelming for the budget. We have a small endowment. We have great people and an excitement about the future.

And yet… and yet… even with all of those gifts, it is still hard to move forward.
It’s difficult to find the money to do what we want and need to do.
It’s tough to find the people power to move forward on projects and ministries that we feel passionate about.
It’s nearly impossible to figure out how to cut through the noise of the DC area so that our neighbors will know who we are and what we believe and why we’d like them to be a part of it.

It feels sometimes like a six jar situation.

And I wonder if you, too, look around your congregation, or your presbytery, and see six jars.
If we could just catch a break,
if we could just finish that camp,
if we could just get a few more young people to join our church,
if we could just hire a pastor—then, then, we could be the sign that we really want to be, the sign we’ve always dreamed of being.

Maybe you, like Jesus, feel like the timing is off. Jesus says his hour has not come, but for many of us, we feel like our hour is past. The statistics about membership decline in the PC(USA) are repeated so often that they have become a cliché. So many churches, here and around the country, are doing faithful ministry but without the means to call a pastor. Our buildings need maintenance. Meanwhile, a recent Barna survey of pastors and found that 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.  And an astounding 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.

We’re discouraged.

We’re a day late and a jar short.

Unless.
Unless it’s not up to us to perform a sign, but simply to be the sign.
Unless we worship a God of possibility.
Unless John’s Jesus, our Jesus, can take our jars and look at the clock on the wall and say, “Forget what time it is. I can work with this.”

For the last couple of years I’ve been honored to be a part of the leadership of the NEXT Church. This is a movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has been working to celebrate the places of health in the church and to support those places and help them propagate. The premise of NEXT Church is that the church is not dying. The church is changing, and changing quickly. And we are capable of change, but we can’t wait for Louisville or presbytery or our pastors to do it for us. We are the church.

Last year we hosted half a dozen regional events around the country where ruling elders and teaching elders came together not to transact business or kvetch about presbytery, or argue about ordination standards or gay marriage. They came together to share resources and inspiration. They formed relationships and partnerships.

NEXT Church recently had our national gathering in Charlotte, and we heard about churches that were on life support who turned their worship life around through improv and storytelling. We heard about a large church partnering with a small church through an adminstrative commission. We heard about congregations coming together through community organizing to transform entire neighborhoods.

You can hear these stories and many more on our website. What’s interesting is that many of these folks were reluctant to speak at the conference because they felt like what they had to offer wasn’t all that radical. I’m no expert, they would shrug. They might as well have said, “Eh, I’ve only got six jars.” But their testimonies set the place on fire.

When we offer up those jars… when we fill them to the brim, like those servants did… well, that’s when the good wine starts to flow.

*          *          *

We’ll never know what Jesus had in mind for his inaugural sign. But it’s significant to me that his first sign wasn’t a healing… it wasn’t an exorcism or a sermon or feeding 5,000 people. It wasn’t a life or death situation at all. The first sign of Jesus helped the hosts of the wedding save face, but otherwise it had very little utility. It was just an act of pure beauty. The party needs to go on, says Jesus. The love and fellowship should continue.

Water into wine is such a small sign. But maybe this sign is just the sign we need. Jean Varnier, founder of the L’Arche Community, reminds us: “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.”

We get mixed up sometimes. We want to save the church. We want to save the world! But maybe it’s enough to keep the feast going for as long as we can—not cautiously, not fearfully, but brimming over with hope and trust that the wine will flow as long as God means it to.

Maybe God is preparing us for something really, really—small:

Beauty, joy, community, friendship, hospitality.

I will drink to that. How about you?

~

MamdMaryAnn McKibben is co-chair of NEXT Church. She is a frequent speaker and workshop leader and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time. She blogs at The Blue Room.

 

photo credit: Paco CT via photopin cc