Tag Archives: NEXT

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

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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.

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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.

 

The Importance of Failure… and How to Do It

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Seems like failure is everywhere these days. (And no, I’m not talking about Congress.)

Parenting blogs bemoan a culture in which kids are endlessly praised and competition and challenge are scrubbed out, and beg us to let our kids fail once in a while. Leadership journals talk about the perils of playing it safe in an organization. I’m on board with all that. The NEXT Church strategy team is meeting today in Minneapolis (I had to cancel my trip because of a pastoral emergency at Tiny), and part of the energy of that conversation is toward experimentation and risk—which opens us up to potential failures as an organization.

What’s often missing from these discussions is exactly how to do this. We need practices in our organizations, schools, churches, and families, moving us from a safe existence in which the sharp edges are sanded down to a culture that accepts failure as an inevitable and worthwhile by-product of doing new things.

Here’s an article called “How I Got My Team to Fail More” from the Harvard Business Review that helps fill in some of the gaps. It’s written by Jason Seiken, an executive for PBS, who says:

Soon after arriving at PBS, I called the digital team into a conference room and announced we were ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and adding a new metric.

Failure.

With a twist: “If you don’t fail enough times during the coming year,” I told every staffer, “you’ll be downgraded.”

Because if you’re not failing enough, you’re playing it safe.

The idea was to deliver a clear message: Move fast. Iterate fast. Be entrepreneurial. Don’t be afraid that if you stretch and sprint you might break things. Executive leadership has your back.

The last sentence is probably the key to the whole thing. I have a pastor friend who told me about a member of her church council, who told his colleagues, “We need to give Pastor S. permission to fail. She should be failing at least yearly; otherwise she’s not challenging herself or us nearly enough.”

I shared this at Tiny’s leadership retreat a few weeks ago, and we chuckled at the idea of having a quota (“OK, that’s your failure for the year!”)… but I hope a seed was planted, in my mind as much as anyone’s. I’m a first-born perfectionist Presbyterian, after all; my default is to see failure as just poor stewardship.

Back to the article. Seiken found it’s not enough for us to have one another’s backs:

With the team taking risks and being rewarded for doing so, we set to work institutionalizing the new culture, adding the day-to-day processes of a lean startup.

Our development team went Agile. We began formally recognizing staffers who took risks, such as the design director who landed several impressive applicants by replacing a traditional job posting with an infographic about the position.

Crucially, we redefined success. When our first foray into web-original video production, a safe, TV-type series called “The Parent Show,” launched to fairly good reviews, we resisted the temptation to declare victory. Instead, the team challenged itself to risk breaking the PBS mold by creating a truly YouTube-native show.

I’m fascinated by this agile stuff and have spoken to groups about how we might implement it in congregations. (Come to the Oasis in October!) We lean towards agile at Tiny. Rather than having committees, the session sees itself as “dispatchers” that help call people to specific ministries to get the work of the church done—whether it’s as individuals, folks working in pairs, or a task group that meets for six months and then disbands. It’s messy, and we’re still relying on the same people too much. But it’s so much better than what we had before, which was an organizational chart that listed 11 committees, many of which hadn’t met in years.

I just reviewed our church’s October newsletter, and for a church with a worship attendance that hovers around 50, I’m excited and nervous about how chock-full it is. In the next several weeks we’ve got a blessing of the animals, a congregational breakfast, a viewing of the Place at the Table hunger documentary, CROP hunger walk, a community-wide bone marrow registry drive and health fair… not to mention the groups and studies that are ongoing. It may be too much. In fact, some of these initiatives may fail. But the failures, we trust, are information that help us refine and pursue our mission. It’s encouraging to me that each activity has a different group of people at the helm. And each is excited and energized by the work they’re doing. So on we go.

This failure stuff really hits home, though, as we think about a capital campaign to upgrade our building. Our aging facility is starting to impede our ability to minister effectively among ourselves and in our community. The numbers we’re needing to raise sound doable but ambitious. It’s fine to fail on a small scale. But there is such a thing as a catastrophic failure.

And yet.

I initially felt called to Tiny four years ago because I saw such potential in this little congregation. I still do. In those early days I kept saying to myself, “This place is going to take off or die trying.” And that was a theological statement as much as anything else. Yes, we have to be good stewards of our time, resources and legacy. But a church that doesn’t risk itself for the sake of the gospel isn’t much of a church at all.

~

photo credit: ktpupp via photopin cc

Following Your Call: Building on Buechner

Two weeks ago Tiny Church held a leadership retreat for our elders, deacons and transformation team (which is fond of calling itself the transformers… more than meets the eye!). It was a fruitful day. We’ve got a number of exciting things on the horizon, including our 100th anniversary celebration in 2014 and a potential building renovation.

Jessica Tate, the director of NEXT Church, led us in a morning of teaching and reflection on the current state of the mainline church and some of the cultural shifts we’re all weathering. At the end of the morning she set us up for an afternoon of nuts and bolts discussions by helping us answer a fundamental question: What is our particular call in this place and time? 

I’ve written before about my ambivalence with traditional understandings of vocation, what Frederick Buechner defines as the intersection between the world’s deep need and a person’s deep gladness. What Jessica offered was much more comprehensive because it offered three different areas of focus, each as indispensable as the other:

1. What are the needs of our community?

2. What gifts and resources do we offer to help address these needs?

3. What kinds of ministries energize us as a community?

These three questions come from the book and website Church Unique by Will Mancini and are illustrated in this diagram:

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What a revelation! It makes Buechner’s rickety two-legged stool much more sturdy and stable.

I’ve heard for years at Tiny Church, “Let’s bring back the Harvest Dinners!” This beloved tradition and ministry to the community pre-dates me, yet they’re remembered by enough people that I feel like if they could be resumed, they would be by now. I suspect that the harvest dinners meet criteria #3 (excitement) but not #2 (gifts and resources), and perhaps not #1 (needs of the community).

And there are plenty of examples in our churches of ministries that combine #1 (need) and #2 (resources) but are completely devoid of #3 (excitement). These are the programs that we keep doing forever and ever, world without end, despite their sucking our will to live.

Our Sunday School ministry was a bit like that until we decided to move to the Upper Room model. Or maybe you read about The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church.

These three questions would also work on a personal level. My kids are years away from college, but I hope that when the time comes for them to choose a major, that they consider all three of these questions. I know parents who steer their kids toward business or technical field because (they feel) it satisfies #1… but it may not satisfy 2 or 3.

On the other side, I’m bracing myself for the day when Caroline announces she wants to major in musical theatre.

“Follow Your Bliss” and Other Myths about Call

These days I know a startling number of pastors and seminary graduates who cannot find jobs in the church. Some are geographically limited by spouses—many of whom are pursuing their “dream job” while the wife (and in virtually every case it’s the wife) languishes in under- or unemployment. Some of my friends are quirky, or young, or gay, or they lack the pedigree to get a second look from churches who’ve realized that they can afford to be choosy, what with this glut of talent out there.

It’s very frustrating. It’s frustrating for me as their friend, because these are incredibly talented people who’ve been seminary trained, tested, pushed and prodded, folded and spindled through the call process. But my frustration is only a fraction of what they must feel. Plus, they need to eat.

Add in the people who are in ministry calls that don’t really “fit,” but whose options are limited for various reasons, and I wonder if aspects of our theology of call has outlived its fruitfulness.

When I was in the call process, it was all about the Frederick Buechner quote: Your vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. This was practically tattooed on people’s foreheads as we all bustled our way toward paid ministry in the church. So what do we do with people who’ve discerned a call to parish ministry, but there are no jobs available? Were they just wrong? I can see how people would feel like their gladness and the world’s need do not intersect, but rather run parallel to each other.

Even my current favorite quote can be problematic. Howard Thurman:

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Sometimes, it isn’t possible to pull and Thurman and “go and do” what makes us come alive. Sometimes we need to find a way to come alive in the exact place where we do not feel called to be.

A friend recently said she felt stuck in a less-than-ideal situation. The extrovert in me blurted out without thinking, “Maybe it’s not that you’re stuck. Maybe you’re being held in this place until you’ve learned what you need to know in order to move to the next thing.” I kicked myself later, because it’s presumptuous of me to lay that on someone else. Sometimes the situation is just bad and we need to get out, call or no call.

So let me put it in an “I” statement: I have sometimes felt stuck, and in hindsight, many of those stuck places gave me precisely the structure and boundaries I needed to work on some things to be ready to move on.

The Danas are big fans of Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame. He wrote a wise piece for Forbes some years ago about traditional career advice in relation to the chicken sexers, lamb castraters and spider-venom collectors he meets on his show:

In the long history of inspirational pabulum, “follow your passion” has got to be the worst. Even if this drivel were confined to the borders of the cheap plastic frames that typically surround it, I’d condemn the whole sentiment as dangerous, not because it’s cliché, but because so many people believe it. Over and over, people love to talk about the passion that guided them to happiness. When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart. What a crock.

Why do we do this? Why do we tell our kids–and ourselves–that following some form of desire is the key to job satisfaction? If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a “true purpose.” In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all–they have instead brought it with them.

I realize that follow your passion isn’t exactly the same as Buechner’s deep gladness and Thurman’s coming alive. But I think they’re related.

My husband has had a very fruitful career in IT, doing a number of different things over his twenty years in that field. Not all of his jobs have been awesome. Yet he’s content with the path he’s taken. And aside from a brief stint with a career counselor, he doesn’t put that much thought into The Next Step or how a specific move will “set him up” for the move after that. And there’s no five or ten year plan. He’s simply done the next right thing as it’s presented itself.

The whole thing drives me a little crazy because I’m a big goal-setter and plan-maker. It feels reactive to do it his way. But I can’t argue with what I see, which is a man who’s pretty content with where he is, and who somehow ends up with satisfying work that puts food on the table.

It sounds a bit like the “yes-and” of improv, eh?