Tag Archives: transformation

Rumors of the Church’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated: An Interview with Nate Phillips

 coverEvery so often I have the fun opportunity to highlight some great writing, or a good book I think people need to know about. Today we talk to Nate Phillips, a pastor and the author of Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church. This post is primarily addressed to people in the church, especially mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA). But I hope others will read on—especially if you think the culture has “moved on” from Christianity and religion in general. There’s life and transformation in the old girl yet.

In our interview, Nate also talks about the vulnerability and courage required in writing a book like this–or any book, really. I resonate with that so much and thank him for naming it.

1. What inspired you to write this book?

On the one hand, it was personal. I’m about to wind up my first decade of ministry and I have so much gratitude for the privilege of being a pastor. As a kid, I never could’ve dreamed that I would have the honor to do what I am doing today. I take some time to write about that in the first chapter of the book.

That said, there is a part of me that finds the preconceived expectations of ministry, and church leadership in general, a tad misleading. In the book I say,

I long to rediscover a real, maybe even cosmic, purpose in my work. Did I really take those ordination vows to referee squabbles over Styrofoam cups, worship service times, and the color of the carpet? Did I take on seminary and the clerical robe so that I could take out the old sound system and the grumpy antagonist? Did I master the theological and exegetical so that I could manage the janitorial and administrivial? That is where so many of us are.

On the other hand, I had a corporate reason for writing the book. Mainline denominations are coming off a pretty difficult season of disruption and schism. Several of my friends are included among those who left my denomination – PC(USA) – and took their church with them.  Maybe it is me, but it seemed as if some did so while looking down their nose at those who stayed, in a sort of delegitimizing way.  

That agitated me. 

Writing the book was a way for me to say, “No, you’re wrong.  We are doing good work in our churches. We are shaped by the gospel. We profess Jesus as Lord, albeit clumsily at times. Here’s proof.”

2. What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?

People are going to get to know some really great characters in mainline church leadership – a healthy hodgepodge of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians.  As I put it in the book,    

I went on a journey, for all of our sakes. It was a treasure hunt, of sorts. Along the way, I met the most fascinating people. They have bright faces. They are taking risks, building favor, listening well, and creating community in ways that remind me, and will remind you, of why we got into all of this in the first place. 

But, more than that, they are going to read about what makes their ministry tick.  I really tried to balance the inspirational and the practical.  I want people to read the book and say, “You know, I think Becca is great AND I see how she got things started.”  Ultimately, I want church leaders to feel like they can use this book to leverage their own ideas.  My hope is that people will run to their governing boards and say, “Here, look at how Mike is doing this in Texas!” or “Jessica is pulling this off in New Jersey, why can’t we?”

Finally, you are going to get a glimpse of my story, one of growing up as a church-kid in the woods of rural Maine.  Mission at the Eastward (a nine-church cooperative parish) shaped me in a profound way and, so, this book is a love note to that expression of the church.  

A love note to the church?  I’m not sure you get much of that anywhere else these days!

Nate Phillips

Nate Phillips

3. Your book is chock full of encouraging stories about real people doing incredible ministry. How did you find connect with all of these folks?

Several of the folks that I profile in the book I knew personally, so asking them to be part of the project was a way for me to affirm them and for them to support me.  That was the easy part.

After that, things were a bit more work.  I was really committed to making this a book for the mainline – not just my little corner of the Presbyterian Church – and so I reached out to a handful of networked leaders.  This is where Bruce Reyes-Chow (Presbyterian), Ian Markham (Episcopal), Tom Dickelman (Presbyterian), Drew Dyson (Methodist), and Jessicah Duckworth (Lutheran) were especially helpful in suggesting names to reach out to.

Then it was just a matter of sticking my neck out and asking.  This whole process has been a battle with my fear of rejection and waiting on return phone calls and emails was  nerve-wracking. I thought that people (especially these brilliant people) would be more skeptical of my idea, but I only had one person turn me down.  When you think about it, most of these people are doing what they are doing because they are willing to put themselves out there, so taking an interview with me wasn’t a huge stretch.  I am really grateful for their trust in me and I hope readers will appreciate them as much as I do.

4. Share one story, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.

You are going to make me pick!?

Each chapter shares pretty much the same format.  I begin with an open-ended illustrative story, do three or four profiles, and then close with the ending of the opening story.

Each one of my little profiles has its own identity and I allowed myself a lot of creative license in building them. That is, I want people to be able to pick up the book and not feel like they need to read the whole thing or even a whole chapter to get something out of it.  It might even be best to just read one profile at a time and chew on it for awhile.

Here is a taster for the profile on The Slate Project out of Baltimore, Maryland:

With a flick of her wand, the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio a mouth to speak and hinges on his wooden limbs so that he can dance. In his great excitement at this gift, Pinocchio makes the mistake of believing he is real. 

“To become a real boy,” the Blue Fairy corrects Pinocchio, “you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish.” 

She knows that a little puppet can be alive without being real and, to be real, there are certain, specific conditions that Pinocchio must meet. Sometimes the church falls into “Blue Fairy Syndrome” when it assesses new creations in ministry. Does it meet our standards for legitimacy? Can we measure it in the way we always measure things? Yes, it is “alive,” but is it “real”? Jason Chesnut, the Gepetto of the online ministry The Slate Project, hears the “Blue Fairy” interview regularly and he’s surprising her with his answers.

Jason’s work began through a generous investment by an ELCA  …

5. Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered? (Krista Tippett? Colbert?)

Maybe it is because this is my first book project, but there is part of me that is terrified that it could be covered in a super-public way. I’m not sure I want to trust my vulnerabilities and half-formed notions with an audience outside of the (hopefully) forgiving church world. I suppose that is no longer in my control!

I would LOVE to hear that this book is being used by people I admire – like George Anderson who is doing amazing work with the Trent Symposium or Landon Whitsitt who always seems to be discovering a new way of inspiring the church. If, for instance, Kenda Dean, used this book in the innovative work she is doing at Princeton Seminary, I would be over the moon. When I read her endorsement of the book I thought I might pass out.


Best of luck to Nate on the release of this book! I hope you’ll check it out.

On Caitlyn Jenner, and Pastoring a Transgender Person

150601-caitlyn-jenner-jsw-1240p_f905633d5cc73c24b5c0da7bc2ade414.nbcnews-fp-1200-800The Internet is awash with reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s photos in Vanity Fair magazine. Some thoughtful stuff, and plenty that’s predictably… less than thoughtful. I write this post with some trepidation, because there’s still much for me to learn, and I hope those who have walked this road will offer correction with a generous spirit, for it’s in that spirit that I write this. This tip sheet from GLAAD is helpful.

I had the opportunity to provide pastoral support to someone as she made a male-to-female transition. Her story is hers to tell, but this is a little of mine as I walked with her. (She was not on the membership rolls of any church I served. I say that to protect her identity and so people don’t go wondering and digging. I’ll call her Jade.)

I felt this person’s anguish as we met over a period of months. It seems hard enough to be gay or lesbian, to go against society’s default expectations and perhaps one’s upbringing, to experience discrimination and sometimes harassment. But to be transgender–for one’s body not to conform to what one knows so deeply to be true of oneself–seems a particularly tough burden. Violence against transgender people is proportionally high. For many (though not all) transgender people, the answer is surgery, or as I learned, surgeries. And of course, these procedures are expensive and very involved, and thus out of reach for many people.

The person I met with asked me over and over again, “Am I a mistake? Does God make mistakes?” As someone who tries to be not only a straight ally, but a straight Christian ally, these questions felt important and agonizing. I read up on Christian resources for transgender people, and we talked a lot about Jesus’ ministry with society’s “misfits and outcasts.” We read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, which to me is a clear sign that grace is a gift offered to sexual minorities too. Mainly I told her that the God I believe in loves us all unconditionally and wants shalom–wholeness–for us all.

The first time we met, when she was still contemplating a physical transition and what it might mean, I prayed for her by name—her female name. When she raised her head her eyes were filled with tears. “I am Jade. That’s who I am.”

I’ll be honest. It didn’t feel comfortable—I previously knew this person by a male name. But it was right. And this is what we do as pastors, isn’t it? It’s not about our own comfort. It’s about naming the grace of God that we are all living toward. It’s about claiming the abundant life that Jesus promises.

And Jade claimed that abundant life. It wasn’t easy and it still isn’t. Loved ones don’t always get it. Family systems are complicated. But when I saw her after one of her surgeries, I couldn’t believe the transformation. I’m not talking about breast augmentation and a reduced Adam’s apple. I’m talking about the peace that radiated from every pore. I’m talking about the way she carried herself. I’m talking about the carefree smile she gave me. You’d have to be blind not to see it.

Maybe, maybe, my prayer in which I invoked her new name was a gift to her. But that last meeting we had was a gift to me, because I saw wholeness and transformation in the flesh. I still don’t understand being transgender. Is it a quirk of evolutionary biology? But I don’t have to understand it. My job is to point to abundant life, and then to celebrate as Jade and others seek to embody it.

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s a saying, “Happy, joyous and free.” The gospel isn’t the gospel unless it moves us toward happy, joyous and free. That’s all I know.

What Will Be in 2015?

The week of New Year’s is one of my favorites of the year. The run-up to Christmas is over but schedules aren’t quite back to normal, so things are quieter, more relaxed. The kids are out of school (though they’ve been driving me a tidge crazy at times). And my birthday so close to New Year’s invites reflection and taking stock.

I love the idea of the new year being a clean slate. I need that every year. (I need it more often than that, actually—thank heaven for the weekly prayer of confession in worship, when we let go of the brokenness and ask that it be healed and renewed.)

As I think about what 2015 might bring to birth in my life, the following video came my way, “Acorn” by Madeline Sharafian. I love the story that’s told in just 4 beautiful minutes. I’m touched by this little acorn’s attempt to fulfill its destiny of “acornness,” yet in its own unique way. That is our human calling, is it not? I heard Jesuit priest and writer James Martin tell Krista Tippett this week:

As [Thomas] Merton said, for me to be a saint means to be myself. …I remember in the novitiate, there was a young novice who would get up in the morning at 6:30 and pray all the time. And I thought well, gee, to be holy, I guess I have to do that. So I’d get up and I’d pray, and I was falling asleep all the time. And then there was another novice who was super quiet, so I thought oh I have to be really quiet, and diffident. And, sort of soft spoken. And my spiritual director said to me, what’s wrong with you? You’re so quiet. I said, well, so-and-so’s quiet. And he’s really holy. And he said, you know, in order to become holy, you don’t become someone else. You just become yourself.

Whether you’re a resolution/intention-maker like me or not, I invite you to watch this in with a seeker’s heart and consider the hard work of transformation and the grace at play as well. What might 2015 hold for you?

As the artist says in her description: “Growing up is hard, but it’s also beautiful. We can do it!” Indeed.

Art to Inspire… Plus a Giveaway!

The Blue Room is undergoing a few changes.

No, not this website—the actual blue room, our dining room-turned-office and craft space for which this website is named. The Blue Room is a symbol for the stuff in our lives that doesn’t work that needs to be reimagined to embrace the way things are, not the way we think they should be. With three young children, we never used our formal dining room. But I did need a study at home. And the kids would benefit from a place where they could play around with glitter, paint, glue and stickers. Preferably a place without carpet…

So during Snowpocalypse of 2010, our Blue Room was transformed from a useless place to a space for life and creativity.

I realized recently that despite the symbolism of the Blue Room, the walls have been adorned with the same artwork I’ve had for a long time. I don’t remember when I got this labyrinth poster (scroll down for the only image I can find online), but it was well before the 1999 gathering being advertised.

And Jane Evershed’s First Supper has been with me for many years. As a former Baptist who grew up with a blond Jesus and very male-centric images of God and Jesus’ closest followers, I love Evershed’s table, with 12 multi-racial and beautifully adorned women raising their glasses into the air. (Which one is the host at the table? Which one is Jesus? None of them. All of them.)

But life moves on. And now I have one of these, a rendering of the cover of Boston Magazine from last spring:


Peace, love, and running.

Here’s poster #2. Brain Pickings is one of my favorite sites, and Maria Popova recently published Seven Life Lessons from her work on the site. The folks Holstee Company came up with a beautiful graphical rendering of it. It arrived last week and is hanging on the nail I used for the Evershed poster. The placement isn’t quite right in the room, but I love it. A closeup from their website:


Which brings me to the giveaway. The Holstee company initially sent me their manifesto poster by mistake. The corrected the order, and asked me to keep the poster. But I want to share the love. So comment here or on my Facebook page with a recent “Blue Room” experience: either something you’ve reconfigured to fit your life as it really is, or something you know you need to reconfigure. (Or a general “hi” is fine too.) Each comment will be entered once. Submissions are due by Friday August 22 at midnight EDT.

Here’s Holstee’s manifesto poster (actual size 18×24″). Good luck to everyone!


What’s Your Pain Tolerance? Essential Questions for Leadership

I meet monthly with a group of pastors to talk about ministry, leadership, family systems stuff and more. (We also catch an occasional Nats game.)

Today our facilitator shared this handout which inspired much discussion:

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 5.55.25 PM

The most effective leaders strive to be in quadrant B: high “pain tolerance” in self and in others. Pain tolerance in this case means willingness to experience discomfort in order to move a system forward, fostering growth and needed change.

I’d argue that quadrant C and D leaders are rare—if you have a low pain tolerance for yourself, you’re not likely to want to attempt the work of leadership. But many of us probably cluster in quadrant A: willing to endure plenty of personal discomfort, but less willing to inflict it on others. We squirm when we have to hold people accountable and support them as they risk and grow.

Being a pastor undoubtedly compounds this quadrant A dynamic: we are tender-hearted types who want to comfort the afflicted. And news flash: everyone’s afflicted. (Philo reminds us to be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.) So quadrant A leaders can come up with every excuse in the book for letting people off the hook.

And yet, for us Christians anyway, transformation is the name of the game, and that means some pain. Flannery O’Connor writes, “All human nature resists grace, because grace changes us and change is painful.”

What do you think? And where do you see yourself in this diagram?

Source: Leadership in Healthy Congregations


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