Tag Archives: church

My Friends Make Stuff: New Book by Christine Chakoian

41fih44oopL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A friend of mine has a new book out! Huzzah!

Chris Chakoian is a pastor in the Chicago area and a colleague on the NEXT Church strategy team. Her new book is Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.

Cryptomnesia is “the reappearance of a suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience.” Here’s a bit of the book description:

The world is changing, and it is changing fast. Social media friendships, global commerce, online education, populist uprisings, e-books, and smartphones are just a sample of the Internet’s growing impact on our lives. Americans are rapidly becoming more mobile, worldly, and secular—all while it feels like the church we know is being left behind. Growing numbers of “spiritual but not religious” show disinterest in church, and mainline churches fear imminent demise. How do we find a way forward? Ironically, by looking backward.

NEXT Church posted an excerpt from her book a few months ago. Check it out.

And check out the book. This looks like a great, hopeful read for church leaders of all types. Gonna put it on my Goodreads right now.

 

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.

photo 3 copy 2

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!

photo 1 copy

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

photo 3 copy 3

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.