Tag Archives: next conference

Out of the Shards: A Sermon for the NEXT Church National Gathering

medium_3277774836

It has been an incredible week at NEXT Church. I’ve had very little to do with the inner workings of the conference, but I did have the opportunity to preach at the closing worship service. Here it is. (You can see some “summing up” statements and a few inside references.)

 32:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 32:2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 32:3a where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. 32:6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: 32:7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 32:8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. 32:9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 32:10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales.

32:11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 32:12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.

32:13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 32:14 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 32:15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

Well, NEXT… here we are.

This week we’ve explored the deviance of Mr. Rogers.

We’ve strewn the chancel with sawdust and hand tools, and because it was a NEXT conference, there were Sharpies.

We’ve been ignited; we’ve been sorted into regions; we’ve been sent off to dinner with our prayers echoing in our ears; we’ve been folded and spindled.

We’ve disembarked from the ocean liner, safely in port, and instead joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

I stand here on this day, like Alika Galloway said on Monday, with equal parts hope and realism. And I find that an incredibly energizing place to be. And I can’t wait to talk to the congregation I serve about what has happened here… but I’m also at a loss for words to describe the experience.

We’re going back into our contested spaces. And we have to find a way to embody what’s happened here, but we’re also aware of how hard that is. Meanwhile, Sunday’s coming. Holy Week. Budgets to be balanced. Deferred maintenance to fret over. And neighbors in need. So, so much need.

If you’re like me, you’re going to want to schedule a few hours to sift through the notes you’ve taken here. You’re going to want to meet with a colleague who was here so you can debrief, or send an email to start planning that regional gathering, or pore over the liturgy so your congregation can break into pairs and do the confession and assurance in little groups of grace… You will certainly be talking to your finance committees to see how you might support the mission of NEXT.

And the day to day grind of ministry is going to make it very hard to stay NEXTy; and for some of us the pull back into ordinary time is too great; and sadly, a few of us are going to go home and run right smack into a funeral, so you know what… the picture of the waterfall on the screen on baptism Sunday is just fine.

What do we do with what has happened here? Where do we even start?

*          *          *

One of the benefits of experiencing a conference through Twitter is seeing instant feedback. Some of you are feeling the tension in the language of exile. I hear ya. Jeremiah’s call to build and plant and seek welfare is strong and clear, but in the Bible, that call comes amid exile, which is a complicated metaphor for us. We are not in exile. Declining membership is not exile. Losing our clergy parking space at the hospital is not exile.

But where we do feel a kinship with Jeremiah is that he, too, is living in a contested space. Jeremiah insists that God is at work through Babylon’s seige on Judah. The people’s displacement is a sign that God is up to something terrible and painful and important, and they put Jeremiah in jail for that message.
…Even while Jerusalem is getting crushed, apparently they’re not too busy to turn on one of their own.
…They’re not so defeated that they can’t throw Jeremiah in prison for sedition for daring to see God’s fingerprints on what is happening.

Now. None of us is likely to get thrown in the pokey for talking about NEXT—
…though the “deviant” thing will need a bit of unpacking.

But we have to take what we’ve experienced here and do something with it. And after hearing Jeremiah 29 for the past three days, here in chapter 32 he shows us a bit of how it’s done, when he buys a field in a land that’s in the process of being conquered, when he puts money down on a contested space and says “I claim this field for the saving work of God.”

Jeremiah is enacting what we’ve been hearing all week. He doesn’t try to break out of jail; he doesn’t mount a defense so he can be released. He does what he’s capable of doing. Does the next right thing as God has seen fit to show it to him. And he does it right where he is.

He’s improvising. That’s a word we heard a lot last year in Charlotte and not as much this year, but improv has been lurking around quietly here in Minneapolis. The basic rule of improv is to yes-and. When something is offered to you, you receive it and you build on it.

And Jeremiah nails it. What he’s offered is pretty straightforward. Buy the field. Buy it for yourself. And he does. This is the yes.

But then comes the ‘and.’ Jeremiah knows that the field is not just for himself. He is a prophet and this is for everyone. So he builds on the situation. He yes-ands it. He takes this mundane real-estate transaction between family members and makes a big show of it. He weighs out the money. Twice. He signs the deed—and I am picturing a big ol’ John Hancock with swoops and flourishes. He seals it. He makes two copies. And he brings in witnesses—witnesses to sign the deed and witnesses to watch what he’s doing, “all the Judeans in the court of the guard.” And I have to wonder exactly how many people there really are milling around the palace jail, but Jeremiah makes it sound like a cast of thousands.

I mean, he doesn’t just buy that field. He buys the hell out of that field.

(Hey, sometimes the Texan’s gotta come out.)

This is not just private property, this is public prophetic action, and he pulls out all the stops! And then when he presents the paperwork to his secretary Baruch, in front of Hanamel and everybody, his instructions are clear: take good care of these documents. They need to last a long time, so put them in an—ahem—an earthenware jar.

Now this was standard procedure of the time, but I wonder if any of those people milling around the jail have been paying attention to Jeremiah, because if they had, they would have heard some words about pottery. Remember Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house recorded in chapter 18, when he says that God is like the potter, who takes a vessel that’s misshapen and defective and smashes it in her hands and starts over.

And just so the point is abundantly clear, the next chapter has Jeremiah, clutching a clay jug in a field littered with shards of broken pottery and smashing it to the ground and saying “That is the kind of destruction our God is capable of.”

So I don’t know if Jeremiah gives these instructions with a wink and a nod, or if he just lets the irony hang there. But if you’ve been listening to Jeremiah at all, you know that earthenware is the last thing you use if you want it to last.

Because pottery doesn’t last a second longer than the potter intends it to.

*          *          *

It’s encouraging to me that 5 of the 6 moderator and vice moderator candidates are here at NEXT, in this place of hope and creativity and renewal. And the theme for this year’s General Assembly is “abound in hope.” And I do. And I try to surround myself with people who are similarly hopeful.

And over the last couple of weeks, I have had more than one person ask me some version of this question:

Why would you volunteer to be on the bridge of the Titanic?

And here is what I say to that. The structural “thing” that is the PCUSA is changing, and maybe even ending as we currently recognize it. Churches will close. Maybe a lot of them will.

But when I look around, I don’t see the Titanic. I see Lord of the Rings.

There’s a scene in The Two Towers when the people of Rohan are beseiged, they’re outnumbered and outmatched, and they’ve retreated to the fortress of Helm’s Deep and they think they’re safe there but they’re not, the enemy has found them and is ready to bury them. And their king Theoden looks around and sees this ragtag group of people who are scared and ill-equipped for this battle and he urges them to be courageous and to fight with everything they have, and he says,

“If this is to be our end, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”

That’s what Jeremiah is doing. Jeremiah buys a field that he believes, and hopes, will be bursting with life and fruit someday. But his deed of purchase is in a piece of pottery, and that is a precarious container.

But even if he never makes it back to Anathoth, those documents are a witness to an eternal God who works through earthenware jars.

If there is to be an end to the PCUSA as we know it, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.

I serve a small congregation, full of good folks who are deeply committed to one another and the church. But we realized that over the years we had gotten complacent and insulated. We didn’t know our community. So for a year we launched an initiative called “Who is our neighbor?”, that great question from the Good Samaritan story. Each quarter we had a different emphasis: one quarter it was hunger and homelessness, another quarter was at-risk youth, another quarter was issues facing the elderly. And in each of those chunks of time we brought people in to talk to us, so we could learn, and we planned some kind of mission event, so we could serve.

And my thought was that over the course of the year we’d find that one thing that really animates us, that one issue to rally around that would energize the congregation and focus our mission, so we could be known as the church that does… [blank]. I expected us to figure out what our niche is.

And guess what? We didn’t. We came to the end of the year with no more focus than when we started.

But we did some things we never thought we’d do. And more important, we committed ourselves to responding to the opportunities that come to us, whether they fit some narrow vision statement or not. We don’t know what the future holds for us. We just know that we’re gonna love our neighbors indiscriminately for as long as we can.

We’re going to seek the welfare of the city.
And we’re not just going to serve the world, we’re gonna serve the hell out of it.
And I mean that in the Texan sense and in the literal sense.

Jim Kitchens said on Monday that some of us are standing in the rubble of what used to be. I submit that it’s not just rubble that’s around us, but shards of discarded pottery.

And Jeremiah is calling us, begging us, to pick up those shards and fashion something useful and hopeful out of them.

Pick up that bowl-shaped piece and pour living water into parched throats.

Glue those pieces together, even if they were never meant to fit that way, and fill them with the bread of life.

Take those sharp edges and cut the bonds of oppression,
grind that hard clay into powder and paint a love letter to this world God adores,

String those pieces onto ribbons and make windchimes, so that the whole world may hear a joyful noise to the God of our salvation.

Do it all.
Do it now.
Do it without a five year plan for it.
Do it badly if you have to.
Do it… for as long as you have life and breath and shards to spare.

Thanks be to God.

~

photo credit: Walwyn via photopin cc

Presbyterians: Be At This Thing.

The 2014 NEXT Church National Gathering will be in Minneapolis.

Yes, Minneapolis.

But come on. Polar Vortex will be a distant memory by then! The weather will be just fine in early April…

NEXT Church is a conversation within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that seeks to inspire and nurture creative and vibrant ministry for a changing cultural context.

That’s a mouthful. Here’s the gist: The way we do church is changing. It must change, it will change. What better way to live toward that change than to gather with other pastors, church professionals, ruling elders and other leaders to celebrate, think, grow, and challenge one another?

Check out NEXT Church’s website and explore our articles and initiatives. I am proud to serve as co-chair of this growing organization.

What does NEXT mean to me? I cherish the support, inspiration, accountability and ideas that the NEXT conversation offers me as a small-church pastor.  But there’s one phrase from the mission statement that tugs at me above all:

...the church that is becoming.

The national gathering March 31-April 2 will be focused on the church that is becoming. There’s a spirit of adventure in NEXT Church, an excitement and trust that our best days are still ahead of us.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 3.40.37 PM

We’ve got a great keynote team, several workshops around the themes “lead, create, discern,” testimonies of how the church is stepping out in bold faithfulness right now, and lots more. What’s probably most vital about the NEXT gathering is the community that gets built “in the margins” of the schedule. The conference team has built even more time for breaks, informal conversations, and Open Space than in past years.

I invite you to come to Minneapolis this spring. You will dream big and come home energized.

Read more about the leadership and workshops. Check out the schedule.

And register here. Hotel info here.

P.S. There are also regional gatherings coming up in Richmond (February 1) and in the Baltimore/DC area (February 22). I will be at both and if you’re nearby, I hope you will be too.

 

Improv in the Oven

tumblr_lp5no7kkMH1qg0le2o1_500

Should’ve had a muffin.

I’ve been writing and thinking about the rules of improv as a way of life. You can read more here.

Improv doesn’t come naturally to me. I know a number of accomplished improvisers, and read this blog for a while, but it’s a struggle for me personally. I am a first-born Presbyterian Girl Scout (to use my friend Meg’s phrase) and an off-the-charts J on the Myers-Briggs. I live by Evernote and Things. Even my leisure is relatively structured—I do Sabbath.

And yet try as I might, the universe does not conform to my meticulous management. The nerve!

But improv is also fun. It’s good to get messy. It’s important to risk, and to step into a place where you don’t know what’s going to happen. Improv is joyful and generative.

As my Facebook friends know, I’m a muffin-maker. It’s kinda my thing: Automatic portion control. Good for breakfast or a snack. “Maximum impact, minimum effort,” as my father-in-law says about his cooking.

But I’d never improvised on my muffins until the other day, when I improvised some low-fat banana-blueberry muffins with streusel topping. They were awesome.

I suspect a few of my readers are first-born Presbyterian Girl Scout J’s. Here are a few things I learned that might help all of us be more improvisational leaders/parents/individuals:

1. You don’t have to start from scratch. I wouldn’t know where to start to make up a muffin recipe. But I know how to take an underlying structure and build on it—to yes-and it. In this case, I adapted a recipe from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook for my banana-berry beauties.

Maybe you’ve watched Whose Line Is It Anyway, or been to an improv show that starts with prompts from the audience. Then there’s TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, who don’t take audience suggestions. Instead they walk out on stage and stand in silence for several moments. Eventually and without fail, they pluck a story out of thin air and improvise a two-man one-act play.

My point is, you don’t have to be TJ and Dave.

2. In fact, starting with some constraints helps. I recently quoted Leonard Bernstein, who said to achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time. Creativity thrives on constraint: Pick a recipe, any recipe. What can I do with this recipe and the contents of my pantry?

My seven-year-old loves to make things with paper and tape. We’ve bought various glues and epoxies for her, and there’s all kinds of random glue-ables in bins in our blue room, from bottle caps to craft foam. But she always comes back to paper and tape.

2. It helps to have the skills. 

I had to throw in some flour at the end of mixing because my batter was too gloppy. After so many batches of muffins, I know what proper batter looks like. (BTW, the Food Substitutions Bible is a useful tool for food improv.)

We did a lot of experimentation with liturgy in seminary, with varying results. I’m not saying those novice efforts weren’t fruitful—they were. But there’s something very freeing about being a decade into this ministry thing. You get to know the order of worship so deeply—not to mention a congregation—that you know what can be pushed and pulled, folded and spindled.

3. Risk from a place of abundance. This is a big one for me. I’ve been tempted to play around with my muffins, but have hesitated up to now, because what if they don’t turn out? When I say “risk from a place of abundance,” I don’t mean to trust that something good will come of your experimentation… though it probably will, just not what you expected. I mean that improv becomes easier in a context of abundant creativity.

If I’m only making muffins every month or so, I don’t want to mess with the tried-and-true recipes because if they fail, then there’s no muffins for a long time, and I have a sad, and my kids have to resort to boring old Corn Chex. But if I’m making muffins once or twice a week, why not play around? If something turns out to be inedible, something new will quickly come to take its place.

Last year at the NEXT Church national gathering, we heard a leader from the Ecclesia Project in Kentucky talk about starting new worshiping communities. The old model is to spend a few hundred thousand dollars trying to get a new church development started. But instead of spending $100,000 on one community, they give 20 grants of $5,000 each to small, diverse projects. The assumption is that many new initiatives fail, whether it’s a business or a church. So we should sow our seeds as widely as possible. Our denomination currently has the 1,001 Worshiping Communities initiative. But instead of 1,001, we were told at NEXT, we should be starting 10,000 worshiping communities!

That’s risk from a place of abundance. I like it.

Now the trick for me is to keep improvising low-fat muffins, so that I do not gain abundant weight.

I’m in Charlotte—Watch Live!

dove-handsFirst off, I’ve worked out my technical issues with the site that was preventing folks from getting to the blog post. It was user error *cough*. Many thanks to the Paraclete Web Design folks for being both diligent and patient.

Anyway: I’m in Charlotte NC for NEXT Church, learning what it might mean for congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to Be Born Again. Lots of fantastic speakers and workshops. I’m on the Strategy Team for NEXT but am very much a supporting player here. It’ll be nice to bask in the brilliance.

If you’d like to do the same, you can watch NEXT Church live here.

Agile Church: Slides and Case Studies

I can see that.

Folks who attended my workshop last week at NEXT: things have been pretty crazy around here since then, so I haven’t had a chance to play around with uploading my Keynote slides to the Blue Room. But if you’d like me to send them to you, e-mail me at maryannmcdana at gmail and I’ll pass them along.

However, I can post the case studies easily and have done so below.

During the workshop, after I’d done a short overview of agile as I understand it, we looked at these case studies and answered these questions in small groups:

Where do you see intersections between this church’s processes and agile process?
Where do you see places that agile methodology might help them?
What impediments do you see standing in the way of this church becoming more agile?
What next step would you suggest?

Here are the case studies. These are adapted from actual churches I queried. Hope they prove helpful.

~

Agile Church: Case Studies

Case A. Edgy Urban Church with a Smooth Traditional Center:
Medium-Sized Pastoral/Program Oriented Church

Before:

  • elders chaired committees
  • session meetings were run as committee of the whole
  • meetings were “terrible”
  • elders were burning out

After:

  • elders do not run committees; in fact they do not even serve on committees
  • new system of volunteer staff coordinators who oversee the ministries of the church
  • volunteer staff are empowered to get the work done any way they want (individually, through teams, regular meetings, online), but they have written job descriptions that describe their work
  • volunteer staff are also empowered to spend within their budget without session approval
  • the week before session, volunteer and staff meet for dinner—each coordinator prepares a one-page report for session containing basic information, actions taken, any major items requiring session approval, and examples of transformation/new growth that have occurred
  • these reports are compiled and given to elders several days before session meeting—elders are expected to get any questions answered prior to meeting
  • session meetings involve 30 minutes of business; the rest of the time is spent on prayer, equipping/study, and visioning “big picture” tasks for the congregation

 

Case B. Church of the Leafy Suburb: Large Program-Sized Church

  • Session consists of fifteen elders that are divided into pairs or triads for partnership, support and accountability—for example, children, youth and adult education elders form a triad; small group elder and fellowship elder form a pair; facilities and office operations elders form a pair.
  • Elders chair the committees and ensure that the ministry gets done, using whatever means they wish (regular meetings, retreats, “divide and conquer,” etc.)
  • Elders are expected to report back to session whenever there are items requiring session input or approval
  • In addition, each month a different ministry is highlighted as an order of the day: the elders prepare a more in-depth report, seek feedback, basically delve deeper into their ministry so elders are well versed in it
  • Session meetings consist mainly of business, but with 30 minutes of study/discipleship each month.

 

Case C.

Same as Case B but with the elders serving as a liaison to the team rather than the chair. As liaison, they have no power on the committee other than a vote when one is required.

 

Case D. Our Ecumenical Neighbor: Governance Model from Another Reformed Denomination

  • Ministers, elders and deacons
  • Elders=church council. Deacons=board of deacons. Combined elders and deacons=consistory
  • Elders are understood to be responsible for the spiritual life of the church, including pastoral care.
  • Deacons are responsible for the physical life of the church, mostly the finances and the charitable and social justice life of the church.
  • Major financial decisions are made by the consistory
  • “Elder districts”: each elder is assigned a certain group of people in congregation, often alphabetical or geographical. Every person in the congregation has an elder. If a person lands in the hospital, they would expect to see their elder and their pastor. These districts are sometimes small groups.
  • Not every elder is assigned to a committee. Committees report to council, but sometimes they don’t have a member seated on council. Councils will often have someone assigned or asked to be on a committee, but not to run it necessarily.
  • Council meetings were usually focused on worship; education; and even a review of what was going on with people in your elder district. And, of course, anything else that needed to be dealt with. Often, Council and Deacons met concurrently so that they could check in with each other if needed.
  • Elders team together (three panels of three elders) to coordinate ministry areas
  • Ideas for new ministries (from congregation members) would be referred to the Elder relationship area panel (and the full Session if necessary) for review as to whether they fit into CPC’s current mission/vision

Case E. Church on the Highway: Medium-Sized Program Oriented Church

  • If approved, the Elder panel will identify a task leader to create a taskforce for implementing the program
  • If no leader or volunteers can be found for an approved taskforce, the program is not implemented
  • Ministry Initiation Form is completed by congregation member or group desiring to implement a new ministry, event or “task”
  • Ministry Status Reports include:
    • Submitted by Task Leader to Elder Relationship Area Panel
    • Monthly Status Reports when there is an activity or issue to be resolved
    • Ministry Completion/Annual Report at the completion of a short-term ministry task, or annually for long-term and on-going ministries