Tag Archives: gifts

Why Congregations Are Stuck

We can... but will we?

We can… but will we?

I had an “aha” this weekend about why many of our congregations seem so stuck.

I attended a “Building and Empowering Communities” leadership training sponsored by VOICE, a group of congregations and institutions in northern Virginia that are doing community organizing around issues of affordable housing, immigration, and other issues.

The tools of community organizing are not just for engagement in the wider community; they are also helpful within the congregation, as you seek out leaders and discern a vision.

The crux of the training centered on the one-on-one “relational” meeting, in which you try to identify potential leaders through getting to know people and learning their stories—their histories, their passions, and what “keeps them up at night.”

To give us a taste of this, each presenter offered a bit of personal history before launching into his/her topic, and it was easy to connect the dots between the person’s past experiences and his or her life’s work. One person’s aunt and uncle was the victim of a predatory loan. Another saw her single working mother face discrimination and sexism and was driven to empower herself and other women in her community as a result. You get the idea.

Then we practiced one-on-one meetings, and I was struck with how many stories (mine included) were some variation of “I had a pretty comfortable life… and now I just want to give back and make the world a better place.”

Now, admittedly, many of us were brand new at this relational meeting stuff. The organizers who trained us (and whose dots were so easy to connect) have been telling their stories for a long time. And granted, it was an artificial exercise, taking place in a fishbowl, and we could only go 8-10 minutes long instead of the 30-40 minutes that is suggested.

But these rather bland, generic responses revealed to me how we find leaders and volunteers in the church, and how we talk about service. And how it’s killing us.

Here are three realizations I had:

1. We do discernment primarily around gifts rather than stories. We need to stop doing that.

Whether we’re the nominating committee trying to put forth a slate of officers, or a youth director trying to find confirmation sponsors, we think predominantly about a person’s skills and gifts. “This person is a teacher, so I bet he’d be a great Christian Education elder.” “She’s chief operating officer of her company; maybe she’d serve on the stewardship team.”

It’s not that gifts are unimportant. After all, spiritual gifts language has been with us from the very beginning. But one of the tenets of community organizing is that good leaders are made, not born. As a pastor, I can teach skills. But I cannot teach passion. Getting in touch with a person’s history allows you to find those deep hungers that will motivate and drive them even when the going gets tough. No wonder so many of our congregations are boring and lethargic—we’ve been talking about the wrong things!

2. We need to get way more concrete in our language about service.

“I want to help people because Jesus tells us to love our neighbor” doesn’t get us anywhere. Yet it’s our default response when people ask us what drives us. The content of a relational meeting is why and how. “Why do you want to help people? Why does that matter to you? How have you seen that impulse lived out? How do you see that not being lived out in your community?”

Just as we’ve relied on gifts as the primary mode of discernment, we have not taken the time to drill down past our surface responses about service. Many of the overworked pastors there (myself included) were searching for shortcuts—Can’t you do this work in group settings? Does it have to be one on one? What do you suppose the response was?

3. Anger is not the enemy. It is a resource. 

Maybe you’re one of those who had a genuinely untroubled childhood. You didn’t see your aunt and uncle’s devastation at almost losing their home because of that predatory loan. But I bet there is an injustice that makes you furious. We don’t like to talk about anger, especially in the Church of Nice that so many of us belong to. Anger is bad, we tell ourselves—something to suppress. But anger, properly contextualized, is also energy. Anger is fuel for action. And there is plenty of holy anger in scripture. One of my favorite benedictions has the line, “May God bless you with anger—at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so you will work for justice, freedom and peace.”

There are plenty of injustices in the world that I worry about. But when I look back on my personal history, the key issue for me has been women and girls, again and again. The specifics of that have played out in different ways over the years, and the pivotal events that sparked that anger are for another post. But yeah. Women and girls.

My favorite quote these days is this one by Howard Thurman:


But how do we know what makes people come alive unless we ask them?

Friday Link Love

How much is too much?

Three Christmas Gifts — Faith and Leadership

I dug this up from the Friday Link Love archives, since I’ve started thinking about the kids’ Christmas gifts:

At a retreat on Christian life, I heard Susan V. Vogt describe a wonderful tradition suggested in her book “Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference: Helping Your Family Live with Integrity, Value, Simplicity, and Care for Others.” A parent of four kids herself and a counselor and family life educator, she had tried her own experiments with gift giving, eventually settling on a simple yet elegant plan: she and her husband give each of their children only three gifts for Christmas — a “heart’s desire,” a piece of clothing and “something to grow on.”

I liked her idea immediately. Giving these gifts would ensure that the needs and wants of each child would be met, that each would receive an equal number of gifts, and that we would have a structure to help us resist the cultural message to run out and buy.

My friend Sherry gives her kids three gifts because “It was good enough for Jesus.” We’ve been doing that for some time, but I think we’ll try this approach too and see what happens.

Stay tuned: I think Caroline’s heart’s desire is a guinea pig.


An Animated Open Letter to President Obama on the State of Physics Education — Brain Pickings

Apparently we’re not teaching modern physics in high school (like, anything after 1865). Is that true? Yeesh:


Why You’re Never Failing as a Mother — Pregnant Chicken

This is making the rounds, and rightfully so:

As for the past generations that like to tell you that they raised six kids on their own and did it without a washing machine? Well, sort of. Keep in mind child rearing was viewed pretty differently not that long ago and you could stick a toddler on the front lawn with just the dog watching and nobody would bat an eye at it – I used to walk to the store in my bare feet to buy my father’s cigarettes when I was a kid. As a mother, you cooked, you cleaned, but nobody expected you to do anything much more than keep your kids fed and tidy.

So much more awesomeness at the link.


Mark Kelly Speaks to Jared Loughner — Huffington Post

Loughner was sentenced to seven life terms plus 140 years in prison for shooting Gabby Giffords and killing several others. Her husband Mark spoke to him, and to us as well:

Mr. Loughner, by making death and producing tragedy, you sought to extinguish the beauty of life. To diminish potential. To strain love. And to cancel ideas. You tried to create for all of us a world as dark
 and evil as your own.

 But know this, and remember it always: You failed.

Your decision to commit cold-blooded mass murder also begs of us to look in the mirror. This horrific act warns us to hold our leaders and ourselves responsible for coming up short when we do, for not having the courage to act when it’s hard, even for possessing the wrong values.

We are a people who can watch a young man like you spiral into murderous rampage without choosing to intervene before it is too late.

We have a political class that is afraid to do something as simple as have a meaningful debate about our gun laws and how they are being enforced. We have representatives who look at gun violence,
 not as a problem to solve, but as the white elephant in the room to ignore. As a nation we have repeatedly passed up the opportunity to address this issue. After Columbine; after Virginia Tech; after Tucson and after Aurora we have done nothing.


How to Use If-Then Planning to Achieve Any Goal — 99U

One study looked at people who had the goal of becoming regular exercisers. Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (e.g., “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work.”) The results were dramatic: months later, 91% of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39% of non-planners!

Why are [if/then] plans so effective? Because they are written in the language of your brain – the language of contingencies. Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide our behavior, often below our awareness.


Motoi Yamamoto’s Saltscapes — Colossal

Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto travels to the salt flats of Utah to discuss life, death, rebirth, and his labyrinthine poured salt installations. These are stunning:

Motoi Yamamoto – Saltscapes from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

He began this process to help process the grief of losing his sister. Salt as an element in healing? That’ll preach.


Can We Redeem “Everyone Gets a Trophy”?

You may have noticed, as I have, that “everyone gets a trophy” has become a shorthand phrase to describe the uber-entitled, narcissistic, everyone-is-a-special-snowflake world in which many of us are, apparently, raising kids. I’ve played devil’s advocate with the narcissism thing before.

I don’t want to suggest that there isn’t truth to this phenomenon. But as you know from reading this blog, I like exploring the nuances of stuff. What can I say, bumper stickers and catch phrases make me suspicious.

This particular issue hits home for me, because on my daughter’s swim team, everyone who participates does indeed get an award. But there are other awards given out too. Big ones. Trophies for achievement: for being one of the top two swimmers in a specific age group. There is also a “coach’s trophy”; it’s a subjective award, given to the kid with the most hustle, the most heart. It is abundantly clear that there are differences between the participation awards and the achievement ones.

The latest research strongly suggests that generic, blanket praise is not effective for children. In fact, praising them for being “smart” or “good at art” can actually inhibit performance because it makes them less willing to take risks or do things that don’t come easy. For feedback to be effective, for it to really motivate kids, it needs to be specific, and it needs to acknowledge effort. “I noticed you did these math problems without counting on your fingers—that’s a first!” “You really kicked hard across the pool this time!” (It also needs to be true. Kids are great crap detectors.)

So the question is, which category does a participation trophy fall into? Is it an empty, generic expression of praise (not helpful), or is it a tangible acknowledgement of effort (helpful)? I think it’s the latter, or can be if the coaches and parents frame it that way. It’s simply another way of affirming commitment, which the research suggests is important feedback for the development of children. (By the way, report cards around here give grades for achievement and for effort. Useful information to have as a parent.)

Whatever the motivation for teams giving them out, perhaps we parents who care about these things can frame participation trophies in the latter way: as an acknowledgement of hard work, dedication, teamwork, and the decidedly mundane practice of showing up and trying your best. You know… those unsexy things that life is all about.

Call my kid entitled if you want, but Caroline is pretty proud of her swim award. It means something to her. When she gets home from school, she’d much rather relax and play for a while, but instead, she sits down and does her homework so she can make it to practice. Once school is out, she will get up and out of the house early each morning, something she is, shall we say, loath to do. She will stand around during those interminable meets for the chance to swim her one or two heats, and she will cheer for her teammates, including the ones who win blue ribbons every time. She will accept each participation ribbon for her heat and she will string them all together and display them on her dresser. She will do everything the coach asks her to do. She will rarely complain.

She will get stronger. And a little bit faster. And while she may yet surprise me, she is unlikely ever to break into the top group of swimmers. She will never get that top trophy. But she is earning her little trophy, my friends.

I agree with my friend Jan who says that we need people around us who will help us discern our gifts and those areas in which we are not particularly gifted. “We need to see ourselves as a balance of strengths and weaknesses,” she writes. I agree. It seems like that’s part of our job as parents, isn’t it? It’s also about discernment. “Good job” doesn’t tell a kid anything. “You’ve been working on the butterfly for three solid weeks and you finally got it!” does.

So I try to describe reality as best I can. Sometimes that’s wildly affirming: Caroline is ridiculously musical. She takes it upon herself to pick out complex melodies on the piano, singing along and adding her own chords. (Her latest is “Castle on a Cloud.”) God has given her a gift in this area. And I tell her that. And when you have a gift, you work at it and play at it and seek the joy in it.

And in the case of swimming, her love for and dedication to the sport are her greatest assets. And I help her set good goals. Trying to beat the other kids is not a good goal. Trying to beat her own time, and trying to get across the pool in fewer breaths, are good goals.

And when she gets that trophy this year, it will mean something again.

Follow-Up: But What I *Really* Wanted to Say…

Yesterday’s post about gifts wasn’t really at the crux of it, but it’s the stuff I needed to think about in order to get to the crux.

Two things:

1. Most everyone loves giving the right gift to someone. The whole process is very satisfying—the inspiration of the idea, choosing the gift, anticipating the person’s reaction, watching him or her receive it. I have had these experiences and they are wonderful. And only the most curmudgeonly person would say that we should forgo that experience to remain somehow pure in this overconsumptive, acquisitive world we live in.

But what do you do when you don’t have the right gift? That’s really the heart of the matter. Do you just buy whatever? Do you get a gift card? Do you write a beautiful letter? Do you make a thoughtful donation in the person’s honor? That place—when inspiration doesn’t come—is when the calculations start to figure in—dollar amounts and expectations and appearances. And that to me is the place of discernment, the interesting spiritual place of self-awareness.

2. Evidence suggests that experiences make us happier than stuff does. Spending money on the trip of a lifetime brings more satisfaction than an extravagant purchase, because our estimation of the value of the experience goes up over time while our assessment of the worth of the object goes down.

There are many reasons for this, but I have to think that gifts we receive have a similar effect over time as do purchases we make ourselves. Would you agree? And if so, how does that impact what kind of gifts we give? I certainly want to give people things that will have the most impact.

Advent Conspiracy, Week One

Yesterday our church began a four-week study of the book and DVD Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World? It was a good discussion with a lot of back and forth. The ideas in the study aren’t new—the DVD is your basic “put Christ back in Christmas” message, this time with hipper graphics and more goatees.

It’s a good study, and a powerful message—one we need to hear again and again. It is so easy to get sucked in. I don’t have the numbers on hand in terms of how much debt people take on as a result of Christmas, but it’s sizable. However, as I’ve written before, this is not an easy issue. Receiving gifts is pleasurable. Giving gifts is too. And some people’s jobs depend on us buying stuff. (One person heard an “it’s evil to be wealthy” message in the study, which I did not hear, but studies on this topic often sacrifice nuance to make their point.)

Side note: I had to chuckle—the topic was “worship fully” and the DVD talked about the shepherds, who were the underclass of the society, and yet they were the first to receive the message. And they went immediately to Bethlehem to check out the story and worship the child. Several dear folks wanted to know what happened to the sheep these shepherds left behind. That wasn’t very responsible of those shepherds!

Someone suggested that perhaps one of the shepherds stayed behind so the others could go to “worship Christ the newborn king,” and if that’s true, that person was definitely a Presbyterian.


For me this Christmas stuff is all about intentionality. (It always is.) This morning I am making our gift list. Once again I am thinking about the Five Love Languages and how this holiday is set up for a default love language—giving and receiving gifts—and not for the others. To what extent can one buck that?

We received an Uncommon Goods catalog yesterday, and the kids and I oohed and aahed over each page. There are some lovely things in there. But that catalog represents everything I struggle with during this season. Lots of beautiful, intriguing, but not-needful things. Don’t get me wrong, not every gift needs to have a utilitarian purpose. But that catalog fits well into the niche of Yet More Stuff for the Person Who Already Has Everything. (See also: Signals and Wireless) I am reminded of a friend who has an aversion to getting stuff she has to dust…

I am also thinking about the people who will give us gifts unexpectedly. Can I receive them without feeling guilt at not reciprocating? Can I assume that they have given to us because they genuinely want to? Or if they haven’t—if they are giving out of obligation or expectations of something in return—then can I just let that be their issue and not mine?

And am I about 10 minutes away from overthinking this? (Don’t answer that—what would blogging be without overthinking?)

Image: Season’s Greetings “Postcarden” from UncommonGoods.