Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Life

The $100 Challenge


The $100 Challenge

 At our December Presbytery meeting last year, our presbytery council gave $100 to every church present with a challenge – multiply it for mission.  That was the only instruction, and the sky was the limit.  This is an old idea – Jesus told a parable about it in Matthew 25, where an owner entrusts various amounts of money to some servants as he departs, and comes back to find that two of the servants doubled what they were entrusted with, the third, out of fear, just buried it in the ground.  The two who took risks to invest and multiply what they were entrusted with were praised and trusted with more, the one who simply buried it had even that taken away.

So we were all anxious and curious to see what would come of this $100 challenge.  As you know, $100 isn’t a huge amount of money, so we wondered how creative the churches would get.  Well, we found out, and what stories were told!  Below I would like to share two of the stories that were shared at the February presbytery meeting.  As you read them, I hope you start to think about what just a small sum can truly make possible, when it is paired with passion, creativity, and faith.  Next week I’ll post two more stories.

Congratulations to these churches, who accepted the challenge!  Isn’t it wonderful what God can do with just a few dollars, and lots of faith and creativity!

Sue Coller, Executive Presbyter
~ Rooted in God ~ Open to Grace ~ Filled with Joy ~

Zion Presbyterian Church, Ellsworth, MN – Haiti Relief
Jesus should have told this story – in the parable the servants only doubled the money!

Zion Presbyterian Church elders received seed money from the Minnesota Valley Presbytery to be used for a specific project.  Although initially, session members were surprised and amused that this seemed the first time that Zion received any financial contribution back from Presbytery, they didn’t have a clue as to what kind of a project to thrust themselves into.  Then the earthquake in Haiti happened.  The pictures on TV, the devastation, and hardship of the people of Haiti affected not only Zion Presbyterian Church but the rest of our town as well.  Zion Presbyterian Church and Bethel Reformed Church have been doing several events together over the last few years.  In session meeting the idea arose to hold a Sub-sandwich luncheon with chips, a drink and a bar for the area residents to raise money for the people of Haiti.  The $100.00 from Presbytery would be used as seed money for supplies for the project.  Before the discussion went too far, the idea of partnering with Bethel Reformed in this project was raised and accepted.  Bethel Reformed’s pastor and people readily joined the project.  On Sunday in the kitchen the organizers and workers discussed how to split the funds (originally the idea was to split the proceeds down the middle.).  The amount raised was $1461.00.  When the folks from Bethel Reformed learned about the possibility of sending double the money for the Haiti people, they readily agreed that the best use of the money was to send it through Presbytery for the Haitian people.  At Presbytery meeting a generous individual provided the added funds to double the proceeds.  The total of the project is $2,922.00 plus $150.00 that came in later.  God can do amazing things when his people believe, have faith and give!  May his name be praised!!

First  Presbyterian  Church, Winnebago – Kids Against Hunger

The  Gift  &  Challenge  were  presented  at  the December  Session  Meeting  —  leading  to  much  spirited  discussion  —  one  idea  was  put  forward  at  the  meeting was using  it to “prime  the  pump”  to  partner  with  the  new  “Kids  Against  Hunger”  site  recently  begun  in  Winnebago.  This  idea  triggered  a  story  from  one  of  our  elders,  who  had  recently  returned  from  a  medical  mission  in  Guatemala.  While  talking  with  residents  there  about  hygiene / nutrition / and  basic  health  care  amongst  children…one  of  the  Guatemalans  pointed  to  a  wall  of  boxes,  and  said,  “And  when  children  are  brought  in  that  are  close  to  starving…we  use  these.”…which  turned  out  to  be  “Kids  Against  Hunger”  packaged  meals.  While  waiting  for  this  and  other  ideas  to  be  written  up  as  proposals…a  young  church  member  approached  me  on  Christmas  Eve,  asking  if  he  could  contribute…donating  $250.  Other  gifts  have  begun  to  come  in.  With  the  additional  emphasis  on  hunger  issues  in  Haiti,  the  Kids  Against  Hunger  Project  (and  potentially  one  other)  were  selected  —  we  are  inviting  additional  donations;  will  be  hosting  an  all  Church  “packing”  day  following  worship  in  the  next  month  or  so;  and  have  placed  challenge  material  in  the  sanctuary.

Cambria Presbyterian Church, New Ulm – Hospice

Cambria Presbyterian Church took the challenge. The stewardship committee brainstormed over what charity we would like the money to go to and how we would increase it. We decided to let the congregation decide on which one after we had narrowed it down to 5. We wanted it to stay in the local area but not to go to one we support regularly. The congregation voted for hospice on the 31st of January. February 7th, we had a potato bake. The proceeds with the seed money came to 445.00 which is being divided between Blue Earth and Brown Counties hospice programs.

First Presbyterian Churches, Edgerton and Lismore, MN – Feeding People

At the December 1st Presbytery meeting held in Renville, each church present was given a $100.00 bill.  We were challenged to use this in ways that it would multiply for the purpose of missions, locally and globally.  The churches of Edgerton and Lismore were having a joint session meeting on Monday, December 14th.  It was decided that our two churches would work together on this project, combining our $100.00 gifts into $200.00 to be used as the seed money.  Proceeds then would be divided and sent to our respective Food Shelves in Worthington and Pipestone.  Several events were then planned to add to our gift of now $200.00.  We would take up a free will offering at each of our Annual Meeting potlucks held in January.  Then again in February each church would hold an additional potluck where a free will offering would be collected.  In addition to this our weekly Lenten services would, at least for this year, offer a coffee fellowship time to follow the service with a free will offering taken at that time.  There are also plans in the working for a catered meal to be served in March with the proceeds from that to go towards the $100.00 mission challenge.  It was already a practice that the offerings taken during the Lenten services would be earmarked for our respective Food Shelves in Worthington and Pipestone.  As mentioned above, the joint sessions decided that the funds collected from all of these events would be used to multiply the $100.00 that each church had initially received and would then be given to our respective Food Shelves in March when they, the Food Shelves, would match the funds given to them.  The Lismore church session also voted to take $200.00 of what they had or would receive to donate to the Haiti Disaster Relief Fund.  Edgerton also is collecting funds for Haiti and when announced that we were doing so, one parishioner from Edgerton donated $100.00 that Sunday alone.  I know that members of our two congregations have stepped up to the plate to help multiply our initial $100.00 gift through the giving to the Souper Bowl for Caring giving which our Lismore church collects, the potluck free will offerings, and the special gifts designated and used for Haiti relief.  All in all I am proud to be the pastor of these two great congregations who truly know how to multiply all that God has given to them so that others may come to know the blessings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

First Presbyterian Church, St. Cloud – Sewing and Textile Training Cooperative

The First Church, Saint Cloud, at the request of the Mission/Social Witness Committee, has given $200 as seed money to the Sewing and Textile Training Cooperative – a project of the African Womens Alliance or AWA. (note: the original challenge grant from Presbytery was doubled.)  The purpose of the Coop is to empower Somali and Sudanese women living in St. Cloud to become financially independent in an attempt to provide basic needs of their families. The majority of Somali women are from refugee families. The program involves 6-8 women meeting in the church building on weekdays to work on sewing projects.  They are in the process of purchasing 6 sewing machines, basic sewing supplies and storage containers. A volunteer sewing instructor will coordinate the program and classes will begin in late March.  Items will be sold at local markets or e-commerce sites. The AWA functions under the umbrella of the Multi-Cultural Center of Central Minnesota.

This project will get started soon because they have a grant from the Multi-Cultural Center (MCCCM) for purchase of sewing machines and a job description for a volunteer coordinator.  The church can continue to help with providing basic sewing supplies.  As we know of these needs, we will publicize then in our Tower newsletter, and who knows, the basic challenge grant may continue to grow!

United Presbyterian Church, Kerkhoven and First Presbyterian Church, Maynard – Heifer International

When we (United Presbyterian Church, Kerkhoven) received the $100 from Presbytery, our session had no idea how to  use this money.  Our confirmation class at this time was trying to get enough money to buy one goat through the Heifer International.  This would cost $120.  The Maynard Church would pay half, as they had a student in the class.  A challenge was made to the men in our church to match the $100 from Presbytery so we could buy 2 more goats (with the $100 from Presbytery).  They met the challenge and more.  When the Maynard Church heard of this they decided to give their $100 toward a goat too.  So we were able to buy 4 goats and 2 shares in a goat and sent a check for $500 to Heifer International from the Kerkhoven and Maynard Churches.

The goats will not only provide milk but fertilizer for the family garden.  They will reproduce and some can be sold to provide income.  May our gifts help someone to become self sustaining and be a gift that literally keeps on giving and improve the life of another person.

First Presbyterian Church, Dawson – Renewed Focus on Mission

The receipt of the $100 challenge gift was discussed with the congregation at the annual meeting.  A number of options were presented.  At the January work meeting of the session, the decision was made to renew the emphasis on missions in the life of the congregation.  We recognized there would be limitations and we could not be all things to all people.  We would focus our attention on missions in two broad categories, local and non-local.

Non-local would focus on three areas:  Heifer International, Haiti earthquake relief and Presbyterian missions.

We decided we would provide through Heifer International two water buffalo at the cost of $250 each.  The $100 challenge gift would be applied to this project.  So far, the congregation has given an additional $585.  We have also given $455 to Haiti relief.  Within these amounts is $61 from a project by our Jesus Gang (Sunday school).  They drew some pictures that were made into note cards and sold to members of the congregation.  We have also met our Presbyterian mission pledge for the year in addition to giving to One Great Hour of Sharing.

We have been a little more creative in funding our local mission program.  The men of the congregation served the women dinner on Valentine’s Day.  One of our members wrote a musical entitled Noah’s Ark, The Complete Story.  The choir along with some additional support presented this as a dinner theatre.  These two projects raised a little over $400.

To keep us focused on our mission projects we have inserted a minute for mission in our worship services.

The most important result of the $100 challenge has been that missions has become the focus for ministry at the Dawson church.

Osakis Presbyterian Church, Osakis – Witnessing

Osakis Presbyterian Church received a one hundred dollar grant from Presbytery to be use for something new.  So we did something really, really new.  With the aid of an additional one hundred and sixty dollars provided by our Men’s Group, we purchased yard signs for every household in the congregation.  These signs will be displayed in our yards several times each year.  It is not sackcloth and ashes, but, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”  Jonah 3:9


First Presbyterian Churches of Edgerton and Lismore – Food and Help

Our two churches were able to raise a total of $1,735.60.  To this we each added the $100.00 given to us by the Presbytery for a grand total of $1,935.60.  Lismore sent the following funds off accordingly: $400.00 for Haiti relief and $490.60 to the Manna Food shelf in Worthington.  This would include the initial $100.00 given to us by the Presbytery.  Edgerton sent the following funds off accordingly: $200.00 for Haiti relief and $845.00 to the Food Shelf in Pipestone.  This also includes the initial $100.00 given to us by the Presbytery.  Edgerton also is sending in food items as well.  We all can be proud of what our two small rural churches have done to turn a small amount entrusted to us into something great and useful that will benefit many, many others at this time.  Congratulations to our two churches and thank you very much.

Union Presbyterian Church, St. Peter – the $1 Challenge

1.    I bought a card for someone celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

2.    I put it with my own money and went shopping for school supplies.  I dropped these in (a student’s) box at Econofoods.  Her senior project is to gather school supplies and give them to Nicollet County Social Services.

3.    I used my dollar to get the phone number for and call an old multi-millionaire friend to tell him about what Kids Against Hunger is doing with Haiti’s Port of Prince as a model for an “each one reach one” dream.  Then I encouraged him to google Ashton Partridge to look at what he’s doing with solar panels.  I did this because Dr. Partridge’s name came to me in a dream, and we were talking about him.  Funny thing is I had never heard of it or checked it out before the dream.

4.    I gave the dollar to the Salvation Army.

5.    The combined $1.00 that each of us received grew to $200.00 and went to a Methodist Church in Mexico that had a special need.

6.    We combined our dollars with a few of our own and bought items for the birthday box.

7.    Fire Department

8.    I gave it, with other moolah, to a friend who lost her job.

9.    I multiplied it and mailed it to the Red Cross to aid Pakistan flood victims.

10.    We added a check with our dollar and sent a card to a little girl who has recently had her fourth surgery due to brittle bone disease.  Her parents are on a limited income and have had numerous expenses.

11.    For just 31 cents Care provides a hot, nutritious meal for a hungry, hurting child.  My dollar was the seed for a $30.00 contribution that will feed 97 meals to hungry children.

12.    On a family outing to the North Shore our grandson wanted us to see the soup kitchen where he helped serve meals on a mission trip a few years ago (Union Gospel Mission – Duluth); how could we not take our dollars plus a few more and contribute to this mission effort.

13.     I sent my granddaughter the dollar plus more dollars for school supplies and clothes because her father is unemployed.

14.     I bought two red roses and a bud vase and gave them to a lady in a nursing home; she is recovering from a broken hip.

15.    I added $9.00 to provide a birthday kit for a St. Peter child.

16.     I sent it with additional $$ to my sister and brother-in-law in Eluthra in the Bahamas for mission work there as they fly to Haiti to help there, also.

17.      I gave it to to VINE.

18.    I gave it with extra money to the Mayo Clinic.

19.     I gave it with extra money to the 2010 cancer appeal at the Mayo Clinic.  Donating to this fund can save 5 percent more lives in just one year.

20.    I bought a scratch ticket and gave the results to  the church to be given to the food shelf.

21.    Through ChildFund International (formerly Christian Children’s Fund) I sponsor two children in Africa – one in Mozambique and one in Zambia.  With my dollar and more dollars, I sent a gift of money to the children’s communities for them to apply to a need. I recommend that people in our congregation consider sponsoring a child in a poor area of the world.  The Mission Committee may want to sponsor a child as an outreach project.

22.     We gave surprise flowers and a card to one of our grandma’s friends who is also our friend.

23.    I gave it to VINE – along with a $30.00 check.

24.     I added it to my contribution to the disabled veterans.

25.     I visited a friend in assisted living and brought her home-made goodies.  I sent another shut-in a “thinking of you” card.

26.     I put my dollar in the McDonald’s donation box.

27.     We donated our dollars to Kids Against Hunger.

28.     A patient at the Clinic, with no gas in the car, needed to go to a dentist in Savage.  I was able to give her the money for gas to get there from my family.

29.     I took my dollar to buy a wedding anniversary card for some college friends.  I then included $100 in the card because they’re experiencing some financial stress, and I sent it anonymously so they won’t feel obligated to repay me somewhere down the line.  What a fun thing to do!

30.     I had a nice pencil case so used the dollar and others to fill it with school items.  Some local businesses had collections for needy kids.  I was visiting on your Dollar Sunday.  Thanks for the opportunity!

31.     I purchased school supplies (25 of each – notebooks, crayons, rulers, pencils.  I planned to send these to (a mission) Bangladesh.  However, the post office was  not able to send it to that area, and if they could, it would have cost over $200 in shipping, so I donated the items to Nicollet County Bank’s school supply collection box.

32.     I added money and sent a donation to the Bella Voce Young Women’s Choir of Southeastern Minnesota.

33.      Ever since I heard of microlending (giving business loans to entrepreneurs – mostly women – in developing countries) I’ve wanted to contribute.  When I received the dollar on Sunday, I decided it was time to do something about that.  I loaned the dollar, along with some money of my own, to a group of women who sell food in the Dominican Republic.  They will use it to fund and expand their businesses.

34.    Gave donation to Caring Bridge; donations ensure patients, family and friends receive healing, encouragement and hope.

35.    I used my dollar to purchase a coin bank at the dollar store.  I put all my spare change in the bank during August and then donated what I saved ($38.70) to the new regional pet shelter (BENCHES).

36.    Added money to the $1 and bought school supplies for needy children

37.    Pakistan flood relief

38.    We added our $2.00 to our gift for the Pakistan flood relief where it will buy a lot more than a local thing

39.    The first week I added $1.00 per day; the 2nd week, $2.00 per day, week 3, $3.00 per day, and week 4, $4.00 per day.  I multiplied the remaining 3 days by 3.  Please use the $80.00 to help the Presbyterian Church in Pakistan

40.    Made banana bread for a grandson who had just had surgery

41.    We bought a packet of white price stickers, put them on a bunch of unneeded household things and sold them at a garage sale.  The attached $20.00 is the “tithe” from that sale.

42.    I want to give $1.00 towards stamps for the deacons.

43.    I shared it with the fellow who bagged my groceries.

44.    Kids Against Hunger; food packed in Mankato and sent to needy children.  One dollar feeds four children.  On September 23 a speaker on such will be at the Wilds.

45.    I donated it to the DNR at the State Fair.

46.    I added some money to it and gave it to the Pakistan flood relief offering.

47.    Our daughter-in-law, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, is going on a Lutheran mission trip the end of October.  They will be visiting the Children of Israel Orphanage on the southwest coast of Haiti, in the city of Les Cayes.  We will be adding an additional amount to the money we received on Dollar Sunday and giving it to the Caribbean Children’s Foundation.  Their needs are many, with a priority of rebuilding what was damaged in the earthquake.

48.    I added $19.00 to the dollar and donated two bags of groceries to the food shelf.

49.    I added $24.00 to the dollar and made a donation to Kiva.com.  Kiva makes micro loans to individuals in underdeveloped countries to start self-sustaining businesses.

50.    I gave my dollar for a forget-me-not from the DAV.

51.    I posted a sign on the bulletin board I the foyer of the Arts Center, which said:
“If you need some money, feel free to take some.
If you have some money, please pin some here.  Someone may need it.”
I pinned my dollar on the sign.  Over the course of the month, I saw as many as four dollars on the sign and, sometimes, it was empty.  I did add four of my own dollars.

52.    I bought a thinking of you card for my cousin who is in the Navy.

53.    I bought a get-well card for Grandpa, who was diagnosed with bone cancer.

54.    I added more $ and purchased items for a birthday bag.

55.    I added to my dollar to make $100 and sent it to my  sister’s church in Mexico.  The custodian needed money for her daughter’s needs for school.

56.    Added to make $100 and sent it to a Methodist church in Mexico.  Another custodian needed to buy a hearing aid for her husband.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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…