Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Life

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 15, 2009

The Gift of the Community of Faith

I turned on NPR the other day and Peg Chamberlain, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches and new president of the National Council of Churches, and Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, were talking about faith and its role in public life. During the call-in portion of the show, someone asked “I have my own faith, my own spiritual practices, but am not part of any religious tradition. Why should I join one?” Joel had a wonderful answer. He said that it is good to have your own faith and your own personal relationship with God, it is good to have your own personal spiritual practices, but fundamentally, Christianity is a communal endeavor. We join together in a church to, in part, broaden our perspective and invite others to reflect with us on the faith journey and to bring in their perspectives to enrich our own.

There are many reasons to join a church, but I think Joel Hunter lifted up something we often forget. As part of a community of faith we are reminded that our own view or perspective on faith, the world, love, neighbor, justice, etc., is limited, and we need the views of others to broaden our understanding and our vision, to more fully encompass the God who is so much more than we can ever define.

The danger of relying only on our understandings of God and God’s work in the world and claim on our lives is that we run the risk of putting God in a box of our own making, and all that challenges the boundaries of that box are dismissed. The beauty of inviting others to actively be a part of our faith journey, especially others who have different ideas and positions than ourselves, is that the box keeps getting bigger and bigger, and we begin to see more and more of the vastness of God who truly is beyond our complete understanding. As the box keeps getting bigger, it challenges us to examine more and more closely the way we live our lives, the way we act on our faith, the way we bring honor and glory to God, and how we live up to the responsibility that comes with all the graces God has given us.

This Christmas season we are once again reminded that God is so much bigger than our own ideas of God, as we celebrate the God who did the unthinkable and become one of us through the life of a tiny baby born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. May we gather together in our various churches on Christmas Eve as one community of faith, to worship this God who is bigger than any box we can construct. As we worship, may we commit ourselves to use this next year to share the gift of our own understanding of who this God is and the life God calls us to, and open ourselves up to receive the gift of the different understandings of our brothers and sisters in faith. Together, may our vision grow broader and our faith grow deeper, to the glory of God.

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2009

The Power of the Word

No, I don’t mean the Bible. I mean the words we use to talk about ourselves. I was in a conversation with someone the other day about this, and she noted that in our presbytery we don’t tend to speak very well about ourselves. In fact, we often do the opposite. We too easily focus on what we don’t like, we complain to whoever will listen and we tear each other down much more readily than we build each other up. It doesn’t take long before no one wants to be around us! After all who wants to keep hearing complaints and bad news? Negative talk breeds more negativity, both in how others see us, and in how we see ourselves.

Let me give you an example: in my last church, we spent one year making sure that every week in the local paper, we had some news about the church ” an event going on, a report of a successful event, an invitation, or some good news to share. We also did something unusual that year. We made a decision not to have a stewardship drive that year. Instead we called every member to get a sense of how they were feeling about the church. The goodwill people had toward the church was higher than it had ever been. It showed in the weekly offerings, which were significantly higher than usual. People in town also began to take notice of the church in a positive way. The next year, we let our positive self-talk slip, and all of a sudden people in the community said “we heard you were closing” and even more concerning, conflict started showing up in the church left and right. What changed? We stopped talking good about ourselves and eventually started a landslide of negative self-talk.

How we talk about ourselves is powerful. It changes our view of ourselves and it affects how others see us. The more we focus on the negative, the more negative we become and the more others see us as troubled. The more we focus on the positive, the positive and hopeful we become, and the more others see us as beautiful.

These days are hard for the church. We have lots of things that worry us and challenge us. The more we focus on the good, the better equipped we will be to deal with the anxieties and challenges facing the church today, and the better we will feel about ourselves.

So here’s the solution: lift up the good things that are going on! Brag about your church! Brag about what you are doing, what you’ve accomplished, what you are trying, risks you have taken. Shout it from the pages of your newsletters and newspapers. Speak of it at your worship services and committee meetings. Celebrate the good that God is accomplishing among you, and I guarantee you will see a brighter and more hopeful future.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 27, 2009

Let us Talk Together About Difficult Things

When I was considering ministry as a career, I had a choice about what denomination I wanted to belong to. There were several reasons I chose the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., but one of the primary ones was the emphasis the denomination put on education. In the church, we value education as part of our reformed heritage. Part of the reformed tradition is the foundational belief that everyone, whether they are a minister or not, has the right and the responsibility to read the Bible and study it on a regular basis, and to come to his or her own conclusions about what it means for them and for their life. We are NOT simply to take the word of someone else regarding what it means. We are to dig into it ourselves and come to our own conclusions. Certainly we learn from the thoughts and opinions of others who have also studied, but we are responsible for our own education and study of the scriptures and traditions of the Church.

I mention this because I have had a few conversations in the last couple days about the decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) to allow the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships. This is something that is very controversial in the ELCA church as well as the PCUSA and the Methodist church and other mainline denominations. Not everyone will be in agreement with this decision, nor would everyone be in agreement with a decision to bar such people from ordination.

So who is right? We often go straight to that question, but I believe it is the wrong question. The better question is, have we done our homework? In other words, have we simply taken someone else’s opinion as our own, or have we studied the scriptures themselves, wrestled with the internal contradictions, taken seriously the different ways of interpreting scripture, sought to understand the viewpoints of those who come to different conclusions, and done the often painful work of asking why we lift up some sections of scripture as more authoritative or influential than others? (We all do that, no matter where we come out on this issue.) Whether we like it or not, it is never as simple as saying “But the Bible says…”.

The people I respect the most are the ones who, after stating their beliefs and options, and how they arrived at them, end by saying, “but I may be wrong.” Whether we want to admit it or not, no matter how sure we are, we do not know the mind of God. We can only do our best to discern God’s mind, act in faith that we have done our best, and act with grace, mercy and love toward all, knowing that despite our best efforts, we may be wrong.

I have no doubt that there will be conversations in some of our churches about the recent decision of the ELCA, and questions, perhaps hopeful or perhaps fearful, depending on where you stand, about whether the PCUSA will follow the path that the ELCA has begun. As you have those conversations, grab hold of one of the shining traditions of our reformed, Presbyterian heritage, and study this from all sides before coming to a conclusion, seek to truly understand where other people of faith come from who have different conclusions, and always, always, treat each other with grace, love and mercy, and perhaps most importantly in a spirit of humility.

TUESDAY, JULY 7, 2009

Learnings from Transformation Pastors

Transformation is hard work. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it!

Yesterday a group of pastors gathered at the office who are involved in intentional transformation work with their churches. Some are working with Natural Church Development, some have worked with an independent consultant, some are using a process they developed themselves. This was a chance to touch base and talk with each other about how the process is going.

One of the questions I asked them was what they had learned so far. I’d like to share their learnings with you, in the hopes that it will help you in your ministry.

Learnings in the Transformation Process:

1. Spend time listening to the stories. Stories often reveal deep truths and concerns that will directly affect the transformation process. Sometimes we end up stumbling over old pains and hurts as we work, which often has the power to derail any attempts at growth if we are not aware of them. Listening to the stories people tell can give us clues as to what those old hurts and pains are, so that we can be sensitive to them and address them in helpful ways, as opposed to having them rear up and take us by surprise.

2. Let those who have passion and energy run with them. If you have a group of people passionate about remodeling the bathroom, or starting a new outreach, let them! Remember that you don’t have to have everyone on board for any given idea or plan, in fact, you never will have everyone on board. But if you’ve got people with passion and drive who are willing to put in the work to see their plan come alive, let them! Help your sessions become permission giving bodies and not just regulatory bodies, so that we don’t hinder creative efforts to grow our churches and reach out to others.

3. Focus on tasks people have passion for. This is related to #2. If there isn’t passion for something, maybe that “something” isn’t what the church should be focusing its energy on at the present time. Go where the energy is.

4. Remember that the issue that surfaces may not be the real issue. Whenever we try to change something, conflict will rise up. That is natural, and there is no way to avoid it. When it does, listen carefully to the conflict, explore what is behind it, and you will most likely discover that the “presenting” issue isn’t really the issue at all. Get to the bottom of the complaint before you try to “fix” it.

5. If someone is feeling left out, go talk to them. Engage them, watch for attendance patterns, and don’t let too much time pass before connecting with those who feel left out. Transformation processes work best when everyone feels like they have a chance to contribute. It doesn’t mean they have to agree with everything, but we do need to be sure that everyone has a chance to have their voice heard and to be considered fairly. People often withdraw when they feel they don’t have a voice.

6. We often underestimate our congregations. They often look to the pastors, and sometimes sessions, for the “answers,” but there is great wisdom in the congregation too, as well as great determination and desire. Don’t underestimate the gifts and drive present in the congregation. Which is great for us leaders – it means we don’t have to have all the answers!

7. Remember what love is first, from 1 Corinthians 13. Before all else, love is patient. Without patience, the other virtues of love fall away. As one of our pastors said, you have to learn to walk as slowly as the congregation walks, or you will leave them behind. That doesn’t mean we don’t prompt them to move a bit faster sometimes, but be careful not to leave them behind. We sometimes forget (maybe I’ll just speak for myself – I sometimes forget!) that we may be a bit ahead of the congregation on the transformation journey, and as leaders, it is our responsibility to help them move forward, but to do that in a positive way takes patience and guidance. So be patient with your congregations, and while you’re at it, pray that they will be patient with you too.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 17, 2009

Nuts and Bolts of Positive Reinforcement for Church Leaders

Can you take the techniques of positive reinforcement training with dogs and apply them to our daily relationships? Sure you can! Just don’t tell your friends you’re treating them like dogs – unless, of course, you treat your dogs better than your friends!

The title of the dog training seminar I attended in Iowa was “Get SMART about Training,” and it was led by Kathy Sdao, a top animal trainer in Tacoma, Washington (www.kathysdao.com). SMART stands for “See, Mark And Reinforce Training.” See the behavior you want to strengthen or reinforce, mark it so the one doing the behavior knows what they did right or well, and reinforce it positively by giving the dog something it really wants – play, food, petting, etc.

To some this may seem manipulative when applied to human relationships, but the reality is we do this all the time. Money, for some, is a positive reinforcer. Receiving that encourages us to increase or intensify some behaviors in the hopes of receiving more. Praise from a significant person in our lives can also be a positive reinforcer. Sometimes something as simple as someone noticing we did something well or made progress is enough.

At our last council meeting we had a wonderful conversation about this, and about how we can be more proactive in encouraging and helping people have healthier relationships within the church and how that can help us work better together and find more joy in our work together.

The first challenge we saw was to simply SEE those things that are positive that we can affirm. Which means we have to be looking for it. It is often easy when we are with someone we like, someone who is already doing thing well, but much harder when we are talking about someone we don’t like, or who acts as a bully or a controller. If we want to encourage people who are generally unpleasant to strive to be better, then we have to begin to notice even the smallest things that could grow into something positive. This is one of my challenges. For example, when I am preaching, if you are scowling at me because you don’t like what I’m saying, you are wasting your energy, because I literally don’t see you. I naturally focus on those people who are focused and giving me good energy when I’m preaching. It takes a lot of effort for me to break away from those people and really notice others. It is typical for us to focus most on those who give us positive energy and feedback. So the first challenge – see the behavior, or even the beginnings of a behavior, that is positive and helpful for the systems we are in.

Second challenge –MARK the behavior. Somehow, let the person know that we noticed, and be specific about it. We use a clicker with the dogs. As soon as she hears the click, she knows that whatever it was she just did was right on. It could be as simple as “I really liked it when you …” or “thank you for …” Be specific, give good feedback, so the other knows exactly what it is we noticed that was good. Even if we never do anything more, I suspect we all know how reinforcing and uplifting it is to have someone say specifically what they noticed about us that they liked.

Third – REINFORCE. What is a positive reinforcer to the other? Here we have to be careful. What may be reinforcing to us, may not be to another. One of our council members shared that touch is very reinforcing to her, words, not so much. Just a hand on the shoulder is enough to say “well done! Thank you!” For others, that would create great anxiety. So it is important that we get to know our people and find out what is important and valuable to them, and not assume we know what that is based on what we like.

Is this manipulation? I don’t believe so. We all have free choice about what we will do and how we will respond to what is around us. But is this a valuable thing to remember if we want to help people grow, develop healthy ways of interacting, and have healthy churches and groups? You bet! And yes, I will be giving clickers to the council members at our next meeting….

Happy clicking!

TUESDAY, JUNE 9, 2009

Parallels Between Dog Training and Church Life

A bit more than a week ago, I had a last minute opportunity to attend a dog training seminar in Iowa. Yes, many of you know I do have a dog (Jas), who has, as I fondly say, “issues.” But I wasn’t going there as a dog owner. I was wearing my executive presbyter hat as I sat in the seminar. One thing I have learned the more I work with Jas, is that there is a lot of cross-learning to be had in moving back and forth between the dog world and the human world, especially since some of the science that backs positive reinforcement training with dogs comes from the human world.

The basics of the seminar was on building a positive relationship with your dog, which pays off in a mutually beneficial relationship. Contrary to what some might think, it isn’t really about getting a dog to do what you want. It is more about creating an environment where the dog wants to work with you, where preserving, and better yet, increasing, the dog’s joy becomes one of your primary goals. When that happens, your joy also grows, and the whole relationship reaches a new level.

What would that look like for us if in our relationships with each other, our goal was to create an environment where positive interactions were the norm? Or where our goal was to increase each others’ joy as we work together? If those were our goals, then I believe it would have an impact on how we are when we worship, work, and play together. It would certainly deepen our relationships, enrich our work and worship. I also believe it would have an impact on how effective we are when we work together, because when our goal is to encourage and lift up those around us, we help each other move into a positive frame of mind where we can put others’ needs above our own and put aside our own agendas for the sake of the group and the task. When we do that together, at least for myself, I find that my own needs are met in ways I never anticipated, and I have the added joy of knowing together we can do so much more than I could ever do alone.

I also find that when I am with people who regularly lift me up and seek my joy when I’m in a bad mood, that my mood quickly changes to one of joy and possibility. Their positive reinforcement of me changes me for the better, and I am then able to have a more positive effect on those around me, which ultimately is the life God calls each and every one of us to.

Finally, when we lift each other up it will also have an immediate impact on those who are not part of our community, as they see us relate in healthy, positive ways. We sometimes forget that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to people connecting with the church is how they see us treat each other. When we do well, it moves even those who hate us to admire us. Even the emperor Julian, in 362, who was staunchly anti-Christian, wrote a letter complaining that pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, as he watched how they cared for each other and anyone else in need.

When we treat each other well, with respect and with joy, when we seek to build each other up, when we are sensitive to each other’s burdens and seek to help them carry them, when we truly love each other and want the best for each other, well, there is no better witness to the world of the life God created us all to have, and no better life for us to enjoy.

More nuts and bolts from the seminar in my next post…

SUNDAY, MAY 10, 2009

Finding Our Way Out of the Wilderness – Part 3: Insights into Trust and Leadership

Probably the most significant conversation that has come out of this experience of getting lost in the badlands has to do with the subject of trust. There was a moment when one of us surrendered to the leadership of the other in our quest to find the path out. My friend willingly put herself in second place, trusting me to find the right path that would lead us safely out. Later we talked about what had to be in place in order for one to surrender to another’s leadership in a risky situation, and she shared four specific things that I’ll list in a moment. But first, think about the kind of trust we ask our church members to have in us as leaders, to lead the church in ways that are faithful to our calling, or our understanding of God’s purpose for the church. We ask for a lot more than I think we realize, and the responsibility that goes with that trust is much more significant that I think we realize as well.

These are the four things we learned about trust in this situation.

1. Trust involves a physical component. One could only defer to the other’s guidance or leadership if they trusted that they would be physically safe in the process. In other words, my friend trusted me to have her safety in mind, and that I would not do anything unnecessarily put her in jeopardy.

2. Trust involves an emotional component. In this case, my friend trusted that she would have less anxiety and conflict if she followed me.

3. Trust involves a mental component. My friend had to trust that I was worthy of that trust, that I would do what I said, that I would be consistent, and that I would follow through. If in the past I had not shown that level of integrity, it would have been very difficult for her to commit to me and my leadership.

4. Trust involves a spiritual component, on two levels. On one level, it meant that my friend trusted that in spite of deferring to my leadership, she was still free to be her own person, that I was not going to oppress her or deny her, but instead would honor her and work with her. On another level, it meant surrendering to God. (Don’t worry, I’m not developing a god-complex here!) But there is a component of trust that I believe is only possible when we completely surrender ourselves to God and trust that through whatever situation we are in, whoever we are with, God is overall and works for good.

I will leave it to you to expand on these four as makes sense to you, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts by commenting. There is something very significant about this issue of trust that is vital for us to consider if we are going to have faithful, forward-looking churches. This could also be a very interesting conversation at a session meeting, if you’re up for it.

I do think that the level of trust we ask church members to have in us is huge. (By the way – the “us” isn’t just pastors, but all session members.) We are asking them to trust us on many different levels, and each level requires a kind of surrender, a willingness to give-up self and will to another. Here the spiritual component of trust is especially important, because I do believe they are asking us to not oppress them or abuse this incredible gift they give us with their trust, but instead to honor the leading of God, and to honor them as they follow to the best of their ability at that moment.

I also think about the responsibility that comes with that trust. When my friend handed me her trust on all those levels, it set me back for a moment. I wasn’t expecting it. And I knew it was huge. I was incredibly honored and profoundly humbled that she trusted me that much, and that sparked in me an even greater desire to be worthy of that gift, every moment. It still does, even though we are beyond that particular moment. When someone offers you that kind of trust, even briefly, it has the power to change both the one giving and the one receiving that trust in profound ways.

So as you seek to lead the church through these challenging, changing times, think about the trust your congregation places in you. Think about the trust you ask of them. Think about the honor and responsibility that comes with that offering. May we all be worthy, at all times, of such honor, for the glory of God.