Do You Feel Out of Sorts Lately?

by Amanda Petersen

Ever have one of those days where you just feel out of sorts? There is nothing happening in your life to cause it, yet you feel like that commercial where the little blue cloud is following you everywhere? If that has been happening lately, you are not alone.

One of the side effects of living a Deep Listening life will be days where –for no reason at all– the little blue cloud will show up. It makes sense if one believes we are all connected, and there are tragedies happening in large proportions, that one would feel the pain of others. When there is a lot of sadness in the world, that sadness touches others.

What do you do with these blue cloud days? I could make a list of ways to move through these days, yet I really believe each of you have your own wisdom. I’d love to hear what you do when these days of communal sadness show up.

For myself, the blue cloud days mean reaching out to community, increasing self care and meditation, and balancing the sadness with inspiration. In the midst of all the sad stories there are so many of how people have reached out and loved each other. These seasons are times for me to ask questions like “Is this sadness moving me in a new direction?”

Let’s take a moment and inspire each other with our stories of blue cloud days and how they call us to a deeper and richer life. If that sounds impossible, I encourage you to reach out to one of our community to assist you in finding your way through blue cloud days. In the meantime, may your week be filled grace as we interact with ourselves, others and God/Divine.

Okay, but why?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks 

I remember my 13-year-old self sitting on the altar of a small Southern Baptist church. The altar was brown, carpeted steps. A woman who had shown me incredible kindness sat with me. She was holding my hand. I was wracked with sadness and sobs. She listened to me as I told her about the divorces, the turmoil in my family, the fear that I was not normal (that meant queer, but I didn’t yet have the words for that). She listened. She leaned in. She cared.

After I shared, she opened her Bible and I remember her taking me through “The Roman Road”. I spent most of the time listening for Roman to show up in the story line. The Roman character never made an appearance.

The Roman Road is a fundamentalist evangelical tool often used in explaining the “Plan of Salvation”. I would come to know that well later, but for that moment, I didn’t understand any of it.

This is pretty much how the many conversations would go:

Nice lady (NL): When Eve took that apple and decided to eat from the tree, sin entered the world. We needed a path back to God and we get that through Jesus.

Perplexed 13 y/o Davin (PD): Well, why did God make that tree then?

NL: God wanted us to choose Him. When we don’t we invite sin into our lives and we need salvation.

PD: I don’t get it. If I poisoned candy and put it in a kid’s room, wouldn’t that mean I poisoned the kid if the kid ate it?

NL: blinking with a minorly irritated look.

Our session ended for that day. Two weeks later the nice lady tried again. Same place, ready to dig in, Bible between us.

NL: Okay so please remember that we chose sin.

PD: Yeah, but God kinda made that happen, right? Why did he put that tree there?

NL: Because God wanted us to choose Him.

PD: What? Why?

NL: Because he loves us and wants us to love him.

PD: Then why didn’t he leave out the tree that would ruin everything?

Our session ended again.

We met more and I had many questions:
Why did God make Lucifer if He knew that he would turn into Satan?
Who was Cain afraid of? Wasn’t it just him, Abel, Eve and Adam in the world? Who was Cain afraid would harm him when he was cast out of the garden?
If God made us and the tree of good and evil, isn’t that kinda passive aggressive?
She sighed a lot in those visits.

I was a teenager who just discovered faith community.
I liked the church a lot.
I liked the people.
I liked the adults who worked in the youth group.
I kept coming back and the nice lady kept trying to help me understand why I needed salvation in the form of repentance.

After many sessions with her, I was willing to admit I was a sinner, admit Jesus died for my sins, profess my belief in Christ, invite Jesus into my heart and promise to walk a path of faith, sharing the Good News. This is called a few things in literal, evangelical Christianity: being born again, getting saved, turning my life over to Jesus. Once I was in, I was in. The questions went away and I was determined to be the next Billy Graham.

Much of my theology in those days was slathered with fear and shame. I passed that on to those who took time to listen to my conversion messages. I was going to make sure Heaven was full and Hell was empty.

I was zealous and I was persistent. I was also very scared, brokenhearted, shame-filled and sad. The church kept me busy so my heart didn’t feel so very alone.

I was always angry back then. If you had to find me in a crowd, you could simply look for the kid with arms crossed over their chest, glowering, glaring, guarded and grrrrrr…

All the while I pushed people away, I was super offended when they did not talk to me. Hurt people often long for what they desperately try to convince others they don’t need.

I was creating an emotional wall; I was a teenage emotional construction worker with endless mortar and bricks: Sob the Builder.

There’s reasons for that wall. There’s reasons for everything we think, feel and do. Behavior is to meet a need, or at least a perception of a need. We spend so much time judging actions we rarely think about what is behind those actions. We rarely are compassionate with ourselves.

Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them at the time or else they wouldn’t do it. My fortress was built for a reason. It kept the bad out, but then it started keeping EVERYTHING out.

If I ever write a memoir I will call it “Well, that didn’t work.” And we still try again.

It’s comfortable to think in black and white because there is certainty there. It’s super hard when you let in the colorful world of all sorts of living and needing. It changes everything.

The option of truly being present with someone and learning who they are without an agenda to change them is the only way we get to have honest relationship. I didn’t get that concept for much of my life. I wanted the world to bend, not for me to bend. That’s how brokenness happens, in the not bending and the demanding it be different.

2016 has been awful for me and many I love. It has been the worst year of my life for sure. It also has been a very rich year. I have felt loved more often than not. I have given love more freely than I have in any other year. And 2016 was still the worst ever for me.

I am not someone who believes life’s trials are there to make you a better person. I don’t believe it is orchestrated in that way. I do believe, though, in every situation that sorrow exists, we can see aspects of living we never would have noticed without the sorrow. I don’t believe sorrow exists as a life lesson. I think it’s just part of life and what we choose to do with it determines a lot.

It’s been almost a year since I was harmed through sexual assault and there have been oh so many layers of pain my family and I have walked through. It has been horrendous and it has been illuminating. It has been heartbreaking and it has been healing. For me, what makes it or breaks it is my willingness to engage life in hard times vs run, run, run!

Engaging in life requires some courage when everything within wants to retreat. When that’s my reality I take the absolute smallest inching forward I can muster to just stay in the world, stay in my life. I have to get open, drop the mortar and brick, and choose to live in the elements, responding to life and love as it comes and as I co-create it. Dear ones, we are creating our inner world as we participate in life. I want my inner world to be a sanctuary and refuge.

The idea of refuge reminds me of my younger brother who tells a story that when he was about 19 years old or so, his AC busted and he had to have more windows and doors open at night to keep cool. He did this regularly in the apartment he lived in so he had adjusted and slept well most of the time.

One morning he gradually woke from sleep with the cat on his belly. He petted her, she purred and nuzzles. Then the slow dawning: “I don’t have a cat.” Yup. A random cat decided to sleep on my brother’s belly.

I love picturing this story playing out. It’s awesome, funny, and it highlights my gentle brother who awakes with welcome.

What I really love most, though, is the cat. The cat went all rogue and decided this house was as good as any and my brother’s warm belly was just the stuff this felonious cat needed to get a good rest.

What’s hurting within you? What’s preventing you from welcoming warmth and companionship into the core of who you are? What is this fortress you are building? What is keeping you from the wander and the wonder that may lead to new relationship?  What is the smallest inching forward you can muster today to answer the pain with hopeful forward momentum?

Whatever it is, I promise you this: the pain you feel in that place is made worse with isolation and vigilance. Peace to your precious, scared heart and peace to your amazing, enduring spirit.

We all have the “why” questions. Keep that up! The questions are beautiful and welcomed. The altar is within you as you seek your heart out.

Knowing this and living this is my road to salvation.

Some Stories from Appalachia

by Abigail Conley

“They’ve got to come help those poor Appalachian people.” I remember the disdain in my mother’s voice as she said those words. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. If you look at a poverty map of the United States, my county would be a lighter shade than those farther south or farther east, deeper into coal mining country. This was the place where coal was brought up on trains, then loaded onto barges to float down the Ohio River to Cincinnati.

As the trucking industry has replaced trains, the area has been bypassed. What were once company houses all along the river are now privately owned, though their outlines remain the same. Some Googling tells me that the population in that area was at its highest in the 1960s. My own thirty years of memory holds manufacturing and railroad jobs leaving, sometimes hundreds at a time, as recently as this year.

In high school, I participated in a leadership initiative funded by local businesses. “Leave,” they said. “Get an education. Then come back here. If our best people keep leaving, nothing here will ever change.” Looking back, I realize they had more vision than I gave them credit for. They saw we needed something. We’d do well to look at those somethings as progressive people, so here’s some perspective from someone who grew up in deep red, rural, white America.

Trust takes time. While Appalachia is a closed culture, this is generally true of rural areas. These aren’t places where someone can spend a few weeks or months, knock on doors, and get stuff done. People who have lived in a place for decades are still seen as outsiders. These are places where relationships reach back generations. There, I introduce myself by whose daughter I am. When I needed traveler’s checks in college, the fees were waived because the woman helping me knew my family. I couldn’t tell you who she was. It didn’t matter. There were generations of trust at play.

Drugs are one of the biggest threats. The stories I could tell you are horrifying. I remember an angry obituary a few years ago. One of the women in my high school class died in her mid-twenties. Her family took out their rage in the obituary, naming the “pill mill industry” and a few other things to blame. It’s true. Pharmacies pop up overnight, then disappear just as quickly. Oxycodone is nicknamed “hillbilly heroin” for a reason. These are places hurting from losing their children to drugs that they don’t understand. These are children turning to drugs because jobs are in short supply.

And yes, they need jobs. You’ve heard before that manufacturing jobs are drying up. That’s not just true in cities. The brickyards and railroads that used to be the good jobs are quickly disappearing in rural areas. My parents would love if I moved back there. I have no idea where I’d get a job if I did. Growing up, I never saw teachers as poor. These were coveted jobs because they meant good, steady paychecks and health insurance. Teaching would keep things afloat when the less steady but better paying jobs weren’t in season. A blue collar worker married to a teacher was common and worked out well financially. In the rest of the country, teaching is seen as underpaid and underappreciated.

Healthcare works differently.  Or at least most people wish it did. I went to the same doctor as my dad had gone to when he was a child. I think that doctor moved there when my dad was around eight years old. He was one of the people who wasn’t from there—and everyone remembered that—but had earned his place in the community. If you were sick, you just went to the office and they’d get you in. His prices were low enough that my parents didn’t even use their health insurance. In fact, later I learned that his prices were lower than an insurance copay. When he retired, the charge for an office visit was around $30. This was within the last ten years. I have no doubt he saw patients who couldn’t pay that much. I remember meeting him at his office in the night as a child, sick, before urgent care existed. At his office, he treated my sister for what was nearly blood poisoning, saving my parents a hospital stay he knew they couldn’t afford.

The first time I sat in another doctor’s office, I was overwhelmed. I’d never filled out paperwork nor seen my parents fill out more than a single sheet of paper. I’d never needed to find my insurance card. I’d never been somewhere that the office staff was unfamiliar. When we talk about health insurance and the Affordable Care Act, we’re already talking about systems that cause difficulties for these people. No one is inclined to sign up for more of it.

Guns really do matter. I don’t own a gun and doubt I ever will. That’s not true of anyone else in my family. Guns are for hunting. People care about how many points were in a buck’s antlers. Killing your first deer is a milestone. Some families rely on a freezer of meat for food. Also, in a place where police may not be able to get to your house within an hour or more, yes, guns are for protection, too. While there are some people who can’t imagine any gun control at all, there are easier conversations around guns for a large portion of this population. These are also the people who see guns as every bit as dangerous as they are, and treat them that way.

Paternalism never works. My mother’s offense that someone from outside would know better is real. We talk about that reality often with marginalized groups, worrying about being white saviors in black and brown communities. We talk about community empowerment, instead, and try to work with communities rather than dropping things we think they need. When we’re talking about white, rural and often poor people, we’re talking about people who are marginalized. They have to drive hours for services. They don’t have access to transportation. They live in old trailers instead of housing projects, but conditions are still bad. I fully acknowledge white privilege. The color of my skin means that no one assumes my childhood was spent living below the poverty line or questions whether I should be in certain rooms. That doesn’t change the reality that many of these people are struggling and existing systems don’t help them.

It’s easier to love some neighbors than others. I get that. Just this week, I officiated at the wedding of two lovely women. They’ve been together four years. They got married because they didn’t trust that next year they’d be able to. They got married because they were worried about one of them being deported. Most of us could tell dozens of stories of those neighbors who are more afraid now than they were a few weeks ago. Some of us could even tell stories of threats against those same neighbors. Still, Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As people of faith, we must work as hard to create relationships with the neighbors who offend us, and learn to love them, too. We must learn to see the brokenness they’re experiencing and help heal it, too. Those of us who are most privileged hold the most responsibility for this work; we are the people for whom this work is safe.

It is my deepest prayer that God will help us along the way.

Innovation Lab Making an Impact

guest post by Rev. Sue Joiner

Note by Kenneth McIntosh, Church Growth and Renewal Coordinator for SWC:

“Last October, Sue Joiner and Ann Marie Stranger from First Congregational Albuquerque participated in the Innovation Lab Workshop held at the SWC office in Phoenix and led by Rebecca Glenn. They have attended video conference coaching group meetings in the months since then, and have facilitated an exciting process of innovation and healthy changes at their church. Enjoy this article, be inspired by some of these ideas, and remember that there are still openings for the Innovation Lab Workshop round #2 happening this fall.”

We began our process with a team of a dozen leaders in January. We were inspired by the Innovation Lab technique of experimentation, deep listening, prototyping and learning as we go. We interviewed people about the church to hear what their deep hungers were. The theme that was repeated the most was connection. Then we created a survey to help assess what would most meet that need for connection. We gathered to assimilate the information and discovered some themes:

There is a longing for meaningful relationships and we are addressing that by creating opportunities for people to get to know each other. We did a Lenten series using the book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons. We had four groups meeting at different times and places over a six week period. These were so well-received that we are doing three groups this summer – one group is reading a collection of short stories set in New Mexico, another is reading the book Being Mortal, and a third will gather later this summer to read plays and look at the themes as they relate to our lives. Our Green Justice team is sponsoring a dinner and movie discussion to explore food justice issues in more depth.

We talked about connecting in worship. We have found ways to integrate children in worship and relocated our children’s corner to give children better access to their own resources. We have added some visual arts for Easter and Pentecost. We did a community Candlelight Memorial Service for the victims of the Orlando shooting. Our sanctuary is now 100% LED lighting (a result of the Green Justice committee and our commitment to making the space more welcoming).

We are looking at our building as a resource and seeking to make it friendlier. We put rainbow doors on Lomas (a major street outside our church) that say, “God’s doors are open to all”. We want to do more with the inside of the building. We are committed to a master plan for the building. We have a trainer and opened a fitness room in our basement that is open to the community.

We became a Green Justice Congregation on May 22 so we are finding new ways to live out this commitment.

We are planning to send care packages to any UCC student at University of New Mexico (we are counting on churches to send us the names of students who are coming to school here).

We are committed to finding new ways to make our building and our community a place of connection. We are finding new ways to get the word out about our extravagant welcome. We are committed to the whole person and to a welcome that is long lasting.

Love Manifesto

by Karen MacDonald

In the midst of a disheartening, divisive election season, the last few days have brought even more disgust and deep dismay.

A Stanford University student who raped a young woman for “only” 20 minutes last year was given a 6-month jail sentence, and he could be released after 3 months for good behavior.  Good behavior?!

On Friday in Orlando, FL, a young woman singer was shot by a man who came to her concert for that purpose, and she died shortly after.

In the early hours of this morning in Orlando, a young man walked into a LGBT nightclub with a handgun and an AR-15 assault rifle and massacred at least 50 patrons, injuring at least 50 more.

What the —– is going on?

As a woman, a defense mechanism, literally, is to recognize that I and my sisters are always potential targets of male power.  As a lesbian woman, I know full well that I and my queer sisters and brothers, for all the legal progress being made, are still despised by many.  It would be easy to put up a wall or to lash out or to pre-judge everyone harshly.  It would be easy—and it would be deadly, to my spirit and to our communal life, to life itself.

Among many diverse spiritual sages over the centuries, Jesus taught another way.  “Love your enemies.”  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.”  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Our spiritual sages keep pointing us to what our spirits already know deep down—love is the only way.  That takes faith and courage and community.  

And it probably takes anger.  And weeping.  Both of those emotions are evidence that the way things are isn’t the way we want it to be.  We don’t want hatred and fear and violence.  So we weep when it seems like those things are holding sway, because our hearts are breaking.  So we get angry at the suffering we humans continue to perpetrate, because we can be and do so much better.

And then we channel the energy that rises in weeping and anger to act for wholeness, for peace; we act in love.  That will mean resisting powers-that-be, in politics, in economics, even in religious institutions, heck, maybe even in our families.  Just make sure that our acting, our speaking, our resisting is done in a spirit of open-heartedness, rather than vengeance or defensiveness.  

What’s going on?  Let’s make sure love is going on….and on….and on…….

Chair Number Two – The gift of seeing and being seen.

by Amanda Petersen

The second chair is labeled “friendship”. This is more than an acquaintance; this is about seeing and being seen. This is about giving the one that is discovered in solitude a place to experience the depth of connection.

Joan Chittister in Monasteries of the Heart puts it this way in regards to true community:

“Community is the backdrop against which we do what we do. It give us the underpinning that enables us to go on when we’re tired, to go forward when we’re afraid, to go more deeply into the unmasking of the self when everything inside of us seems to go to stone, goes dry and dull and lethargic. Community building does not just happen; it cannot be taken for granted. It requires both great faith and great trust that is generated by continuing display of great human care that  begins with me and then comes back to me.”

Deep relationships with others allow us to practice being vulnerable, real, and to participate in grace, mercy, and deep joy and love.  It gives the self discovered in solitude a place to be seen and heard and allows us to be the mirror of Love to others in the same way. The gift of that second chair of community/friendship is the reality of Holy Ground.

This week find someplace where you may truly connect with another person.  Let that person know what a gift they are.

2 Ways to Make your Church Exits Less Attractive

by Kenneth McIntosh

Late last summer there was an article in the Huffington Post titled “Are you Fed Up with Church? 30 Million Say Yes!” The Writer, Patrick Vaughn, is a Presbyterian Minister and the article summarized the findings of research by Dr. Josh Packard. The full report by Dr. Packard is available from Group Publishing for $25.00. Vaughn’s article can be accessed here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-vaughn/are-you-fed-up-with-churc_b_7941012.html

I wish I could say that I was shocked by the article, but I’m not. Other research—such as the Pew survey of American religious life– confirm similar results: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

But the Huff Po article does more than report weal and woe; Vaughn pulls out two lessons from Packard’s study that can be helpful for congregations desiring to be an exception to the rule of decline. The study is basically an exit interview on a mega-scale, finding out why those who are “done” with churches (plus those headed for the exit at the time they were surveyed) are walking away.

Vaughn says, “the Dones are not giving up on God. They are giving up on an institution.” Parenthetically, this contrasts with my own first-hand observations (which are vastly more limited, and confined to my politically liberal college town setting). Over the past decade, I’ve spoken with the majority of people who’ve left my congregations, and the largest single cause has been loss of religious belief; people’s beliefs changed from Theist to Atheist or Agnostic, and they felt incongruent in a Christian worship setting. But again, this is apparently not the case on a larger scale national-scope survey; the broader majority left their churches while still identifying as believers in God.

The first major reported cause for being ‘done’ with church was failure to experience deep and meaningful community. The people surveyed wanted very much to be part of a group, where they belonged, were supported by others, and were connected to other church members in substantial ways—and they were largely disappointed by the lack of such experiences.

The second reason for the disappointment of the Dones was the failure of churches to engage them in activities that were of value to the larger world. While churches were eager to solicit volunteers, the content of volunteer activities was focused on institutional maintenance, such as committees, classes, work days and etc. that were purposed for the continuation of the congregation. In other words, churches were internally focused, rather than seeking to better their cities or planet.

This survey of those leaving churches can be useful for those of us still active in churches insofar as they suggest a dual focus of our energies. There are manifold aspects of church life, and proponents and enthusiasts of each aspect can make good case why more effort be expended in their sphere of interest (I recently blogged in this forum suggesting the neglected importance of contemplative spiritual disciplines). Looking at the big picture of Dr. Packard’s work, it behooves us to focus on two things:  building community, and encouraging participation in social action.

Efforts at building community within a church are sometimes disparaged as “social club,” with the insinuation that they are less valuable than “spiritual” or worship events. This survey suggests that they are, however, essential for continuity of healthy congregations. Worship itself can be re-designed to foster community; by seating people facing toward one another, inviting lay members to share the rites and symbolic actions of worship, inviting prayers from the congregation, framing the sermon as more of a dialogue, and so on. Likewise, all other activities of a church—small groups, classes, and even the dreaded committees—can be re-designed to facilitate fellowship. And activities that smack of “social club” such as dinners for eight, or amateur talent night, or microbrew tasting (for the hipster church) should perhaps be elevated to more valued status.

It’s good news for UCC churches that people wish to be involved in activities that better society. Our churches are premier social justice centers, and even our small congregations tend to be outward-focused. Perhaps we can refine this area of our expertise? Rather than simply posting meetings for the homeless, racial justice, refugee advocacy and so-on, make sure that every notice is an invitation with the clear message that newcomers are welcomed and encouraged to participate. And when mobilizing, make sure that new volunteers can be incorporated into ongoing projects with the least possible amount of hurdles to jump (accountability and safety are always paramount—but sometimes we have rules that are just unnecessary barriers for new participants).

In this age of church decline, it’s a valuable gift knowing that there are ways to make the church exits less appealing. By shoring up our ministries of community-building and mission, we can lessen the flow of members toward the exits and strengthen the Body of Christ.

The Art of Eldering

by Amos Smith

The entire Christian tradition can be seen in terms of eldering. The witnesses in the Bible are our ancient elders, whose words mentor disciples through the ages. The early Christian community deferred to its elders, preserved their writings, learned and grew from their example.

When I attended Quaker Meetings for Worship during college days, the community clearly identified its elders. Quaker elders were also known as “Seasoned Friends.” The elders, who had been in the community a long time, had gathered around many crackling beach fires. They knew the life-giving stories. They’d been pummeled by life and survived to speak carefully chosen words of truth, sometimes as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. Elders were sought for council. The most wizened engaged in the delicate and humble art of puncturing peoples’ inflated egos in order to restore their souls.

A tragedy of America that is echoed throughout Hollywood and mass media is the supremacy of the teenager and young adult. Our culture reveres teens. We celebrate their vitality, enthusiasm, and beauty. There are many praiseworthy qualities of young adulthood, yet for a society to revere teens is backward. Teen role models would never go over in traditional societies found in Asia, South America, and elsewhere. In these societies the wizened elders are appropriately revered.

The sage, not the teen heartthrob, deserves the highest honor.

The Art of Playing Well Together—For Pastors and Church Leaders

by Kenneth McIntosh

We all want our churches to be healthy and effective in mission—but we know that isn’t always the case. Over the past decades I’ve seen that conflicts between pastors and lay leaders—especially church council members—are one of the most common causes of problems in congregations. The sad results of such a disconnect can include church splits, declining attendance, and pastors leaving churches.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so may I suggest that you read on through, and see if some of these thoughts are helpful for you and your congregation?

FOR ALL (CLERGY AND LAITY):

1. Don’t say “my” church.

I know, “my” church can be a sign of pride—like “my” family or “my country.” But even when used innocently, it can pave the way to a less noble use of the expression. Recall a time when church disagreements have grown serious, notice how talk of our church shifted to my church. The pastor starts talking about what won’t be allowed in my church, the deacon will be darned if such-and-such happens in my church, and by the time it reaches this level of misguided ownership, it goes to heck in a hand basket.

How to prevent such self-centered thinking? It’s better if everyone speaks of our church, so long as we includes everyone in the church and not just a faction. But really it is Christ’s church! Or God’s church, if we prefer. Church decisions shouldn’t be about what suits this person or that person, but about how any decision lead to the creation of the Beloved Community. Sometimes a little word can make a difference, so listen to yourself—do you speak of my church, our church, or God’s church?

2. No surprises!

There is only one exception to this rule, which is a surprise party in someone’s honor. Otherwise, there is never any reason to surprise someone–either with an unexpected meeting, sudden resolution, unscheduled vote, or unscheduled visit by a delegation to an office. The need by any party to bring something up in an unexpected and unannounced manner always indicates some level of distrust or malfeasance—it is prelude to a power play as surely as Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March. If you hear that a group of people plan a surprise meeting with the pastor, or the pastor decides he has to drop in on someone with a bombshell, beg them to reconsider. If you’re at a council meeting and something gets brought up suddenly, or it’s obvious that a motion is being railroaded, say “this is rather sudden—let’s give it more time for thought.”

Of course, the positive antidote to surprise actions is communication in advance.  As a minister, I consult with the church moderator (or whichever persons will be effected) before  introducing any change. In return, I appreciate that lay leaders know to bring up any matters of substance in advance of formal discussion or action. This sort of “testing the waters” with people builds relational confidence between parties and it enables deeper thinking about decisions.

3. Fight against Common Foes—not Against Each Other

I often use this metaphor for marriage counseling, but it can apply as well to church councils and ministers. Suppose you’re walking together down a dark alley, and a bunch of thugs jump you. Instead of struggling against your attackers, you turn on one another and start beating each other up.

The picture is ludicrous, but that’s what couples sometimes do in a marriage—and pastors and church leaders do it as well. Your church is assailed with all manner of challenges—financial needs, ways to connect with the larger community, straining resources of time and energy, etc. When these foes assail a group, they sometimes turn against one another, beating up and blaming, rather than standing together as a united front and directing their combined energies against the problems. As Ben Franklin put it at the beginning of the colonial revolution, “If we don’t hang together, then we shall surely hang separately.” When troubles confront your church, seek ways to frame it as “all of us united” against the common threat.

FOR MINISTERS:

  1. Non-Anxious Presence

This comes from Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s classic book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. Over the past twenty years I’ve spoken to a number of pastors who agree that this is as close as it comes to a “silver bullet” for surviving church conflicts. There are two parts: (1) “Non-anxious” is self-explanatory; when you sense disagreement do all you can to reduce your own stress; try to look at it playfully and lightly. Even if there is something vital at stake, thinking of it as being of great consequence will not help the situation. Of course, keeping one’s Zen-state when others disagree with us requires considerable spiritual and mental practice. And don’t forget (2) “Presence.” This is also counter-intuitive, but when you know someone disagrees with you stay close to them relationally. When there is heat, we naturally desire to back-away; that is instinctive, but it exacerbates problems.  

Again, prevention is better than cure. The best way to ensure “non-anxious presence” is for pastor and congregants to establish good rapport. It’s easy to think “ministers are so busy, it’s a waste of time to just hang out with parishoners.” But in fact, just talking when there aren’t any heavy issues is a vital use of time. Pastors and lay leaders with well-established relationships are more likely to be able to stay in-sync and weather storms together when they arise.

2. “Watch your life and doctrine closely.”—1 Timothy 4:16

Rabbi Friedman says the primary task of a clergy person is: “take primary responsibility for his or her own position…and work to define his or her own goals and self.” Putting that in mystical terms, I recall the words of a mentor on a personal retreat: “You are the sacrament of the Holy Spirit for your congregation.” The pastor’s  own being—what they do and believe—is, as the Apostle Paul wrote, a critical element for the health of God’s church.

In the United Church of Christ, ministers are fortunate to have two outstanding documents that can aid in this. The minimal statement of a clergy person’s expectations—a list of lines to never cross—is the Ordained Minister’s Code, and particularly the section titled Ethics of Ministry. A teacher in seminary often said, “Every minister has his or her price,” a caution that no-one is above failing ethically, given the worst case scenario. Unfortunately, it is possible to gradually descend into such a worst case scenario like the proverbial frog boiling unknowingly in the pot. A regular reading of the Ordained Minister’s Code is a good way to ensure that the pastor stays far from the boiling point.

On a more positive note, the document titled The Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers of the United Church of Christ is a great summary of what the Apostle Paul enjoins when he says “watch your life and doctrine.” Its comprehensive nature can be a bit daunting at first glance, so remember that this is a listing of the ideals for ministry. The Marks of Faithful and Effective Ministers is a great summation of the high call of God so an occasional review of the marks can provide a valuable refresher for active clergy.

3. Bless the “Loyal Opposition.”

This is another excellent suggestion from Friedman. Do you know a member of your parish who always has something critical, snide or oppositional to say? The one whom you think of as the burr stuck permanently under your saddle? Yeah, you have someone in mind when you read this.

When viewed negatively, such individuals can grow to become a minister’s pitfall—like the burr that chafes until it opens a wound and then becomes infected. But there’s a way to re-interpret such a person: they are in fact doing the minister a favor. Social psychologists verify that every group needs a consistent critic; any organization comprised entirely of “yay-sayers” will stagnate. There has to be a voice of correction. Leaders don’t have to agree with that voice, but they do need to hear it.

In one of my churches there was a woman who did not profess Christianity, and who was outspoken in her disagreements. Sometimes she’d come out and say “That’s silly—do you people realize how ridiculous that sounds to people outside of this church?” I came to realize that in some cases her stinging insights were spot on. I would thank her for such remarks, and others in the church picked up on that cue. I came to privately regard her as “our congregation’s B.S. meter.” When she passed away, she donated all her remaining assets to a new church that I was then planting—and then I realized she truly was the loyal opposition.

FOR LAY LEADERS:

  1. Never Relay Anonymous Negative Comments

Would you like to know how we can destroy our churches? Ruin our pastors’ health? I’ll tell you how. It’s simple. Just make a point of telling the pastor “People are saying…”and end the sentence with a negative comment—about the music, sermon, outreach ministry–you name it. This puts the minister in a position of fear (what people? How many?) Then the minister looks at people wondering “Is it so and so?” It is double jeopardy because not knowing whom to address, the pastor has no idea how to rectify or approach the situation. No wonder Jesus tells us to confront people directly—to their face—if we must speak words of correction (Matthew 18).

The solution? If you hear someone saying negative about a third party, ask them “Have you spoken directly to so-and-so with your concern?” Especially if “so-and-so” is your pastor. Doing this could save your church.

And a tip for ministers: next time someone comes to you saying “People are saying…” Reply with this: “I’ll address that when the person concerned tells me to my face—until then, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t real.”

2. Offer positive and specific feedback

Everyone appreciates appreciation, and clergy are no exception to the rule. But even better than gracious sentiments is specific positive feedback. So instead of “Great sermon pastor” you could say “I appreciate the way you applied the Old Testament to this week’s political events.” Rather than, “Our church is doing great,” you could say “I was pleased this week at my Rotary club meeting to hear a city councilman speak well of our refugee ministry.” Statements of this sort provide the minister with a sense of being appreciated and also provide valuable information.

The pastor(s), council members, and ministry leaders of any church are a team, and congregational health depends on their ability to play well together. Remembering these suggestions may help your team to stay successfully in the game, effectively serving God’s Beloved Community.

View what’s possible: an astonishing experience of the infinite

By Kelly Kahlstrom

I don’t know if you recall the View-master’s from childhood. A “reel” of slides could be dropped into the stereoscope and with a click the slides would change and tell a story. Even the slogan “View-master- View what’s possible” held great intrigue for me. I am asking you to imagine this blog as a story in a View-master.

*click*

Title: ChazzyBear: a story in four pictures.

*click*

I was in the car driving to Tucson for a weekend with my grandchildren. I hurriedly leave right after work hoping to arrive before they go to bed; a few minutes of Oma time and perhaps a few books before lights out. Just outside of Marana I received the text. Chaz was dead. So many questions I could not address in the car nor adequately from Tucson. I was alone with my thoughts and my time with the kids was frequently punctuated with images of Chaz. Chaz my love…such a short life you had…woefully packed with more than your fair share of demons…Early life trauma begat addictions to food, nicotine, alcohol and pain meds which seemed to manage you for much of your life as did the medical complications that followed…Your anxiety and alternatively your depression seemed immeasurable and endless… You had aged out of services but were not yet ready to fly… You did not fit the gender binary… So many obstacles for one young person to have to hurdle in a thousand lifetimes of trying…The pathology was overwhelming… And then you were gone… a death out of the normal sequence of time…suddenly, regrettably, but sadly, not unexpectedly.  

*click*

Now imagine her peer group huddled together in disbelief at this turn of events. It had been 3 days since the news broke of her accidental overdose. Skillfully encouraged by an adult volunteer, her peers offered their expressions of remembrance…Silly, brave, fun, divine, daredevil, genuine, compassionate, funny, artistic, wonderful, thoughtful, mindful, deep, enduring, laughter, real, outspoken, smile, caring, open, sharing, friend, courageous, supporter, leader, sassy, survivor, inspirational, powerful, heartfelt, dancer, joyous, empathetic, rebel, charismatic, non-apologetic, beautiful, challenger, fearless, forward, radiant, sparkle, confident, loved.

To her peers she was a bad-a** woman who was not afraid to own her issues, and who expressed her pain and joy through music and dance.

*click*

Flashback, if you will, to a time before photography, at the turn of the 19th century, in the center of cultural life in Berlin. The literary salon; “a simple tea-table with a charming hostess, enthusiasm for reading and discussing literature, sparkling conversation and an atmosphere of friendship”. The Aufklärung, or the Enlightenment, dominated the world of ideas shared in these salons. Reason was fast becoming the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Yet, one member of Henriette Herz’s salon was something of an enigma to the typical salon participant. A brilliant and gifted conversationalist, by all appearances an Enlightenment thinker, but also a cleric who retained his Moravian roots and, seemingly, the antiquated beliefs of the church. For his 29th birthday, the salon participants gave him free reign to “explain himself” to the “cultured despisers” of his day. This is what he said to them:

  1. You think religion is only about priests and rules (or knowing and doing). It is not.
  2. This is what I think religion is: an astonishing experience of the infinite which can be found in the most mundane, finite moments of our lives if we are awake to them.
  3. Learning to “stay awake” must be cultivated and takes practice.
  4. These experiences of the infinite are so cool that they beg to be shared with others. The more they are shared with others the better each of us are at recognizing the infinite when we see it.
  5. There is a social structure already set up to cultivate and talk about these experiences. It is called church. You should try it sometime.  The only differences between the experiences of those inside church and those outside of church is that the church calls these experiences God.

Young Friedrich Schleiermacher was able to convince some of his closest friends to consider this possibility.

*click*

Now picture the conference office, fondly called the 917, filled to capacity and decked out in flowers, candles, and pink and purple balloons. A video projector played a loop of the many pictures of Chaz dancing, singing, and participating in the life of this community. Through the outreach efforts of Elizabeth Youngberg, pastor of Rebel & Divine, Chaz’s mother, younger brother and maternal grandmother were present for the service. It was peer led; her friends offered the prayers, the music, the poetry readings, and the remembrances. Simple…Heartfelt…Tearful…Beautiful.

This was the environment that Chaz’s brother stepped into when he stood to say a few words. He was, by his own admission, as shy and introverted as Chaz was outgoing. The dress shirt and pants purchased for the occasion seemed uncomfortably out of character for him. He apologized for his perceived lack of eloquence and then, with quiet sincerity, he shared his thoughts. He was surprised to learn of Chaz’s attachment to this community – a community that we call church. And through this experience, he realized that he had never really known his sister. This led to a request for conversation; an open invitation to all who knew Chaz to share their stories with him so that he could fill in the gaps of his own, and perhaps fractured, experience of her.  

*click*

Epilogue: Only Chaz’s brother can say if the service and fellowship afterward constituted an experience of the infinite for him. It certainly was for me. Like the View-master slogan- “View what is possible,” I am continually amazed at the opportunities we have to adjust (and by this I mean broaden) our own perceptions when we actively participate in the life of a community. Especially a community that finds experiences of the infinite so cool that they beg to be shared with others; whether or not they can call these experiences God. ChazzyBear…you left bigger shoes to fill than I first imagined. Rest in peace.