Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Life


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…

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.


Finding Our Way Out of the Wilderness – More Lessons Learned

OK – you read the story of my getting lost in the badlands in the last post, so I won’t repeat that here. There were, though, some more lessons learned that I think have some relation to where we are as a church in this changing world. For now I’ll just list five of them them and see where that takes us.

1. When we first realized we were lost, we took our time. We kept going back to the last place where we knew we were on the right track, and kept trying new directions from there. When you know you’re on the wrong track, don’t be afraid to go backwards for a bit. Sometimes its in going backwards that we discover the right path. That’s what happened to us! By continually going back to our lunch spot, we finally saw the path we had missed.

2. Be prepared – when we realized there was a chance we may be overnight in the wilderness, we realized we did not bring along some key survival gear. Travel light, for you are traveling, but also take along the things that will help you weather storms or unexpected detours. Take along things that will help you stay warm, and find your way.

3. Rely on each other – you are not out there alone. Draw on the strength of those around you and be a source of strength to them when things get tough. Challenges are much easier to face together.

4. Persevere – when you aren’t sure where you’re going or how to get there, keep trying – if the first way doesn’t work, try something else. Don’t give up. If we give up, there may not be anyone around who will step in for us.

5. Don’t be afraid to explore and take off in new directions – there is a whole world out there of wonderful surprises that most of us have never experienced! That is true both for the wilderness and the church! Don’t let the risks stop you from growing.

What other lessons do you draw from the story?

One more post to come….

MONDAY, MAY 4, 2009

Finding Our Way Out of the Wilderness

First, a story, then a reflection…

Let me begin by saying that God did an awesome job in the North Dakota Badlands! Beautiful country, so beautiful you could get lost in it. Which I did. To make a long story short, a friend and I went off trail down a hoof track, had an awesome hike, stopped for lunch, and then couldn’t find our way back. What was such a clear path leading one direction was not at all clear when you went the opposite direction. We found several hoof paths we never noticed going in, tried out many, but none seemed right. We kept having to go back to our lunch spot to try another one. Finally, out of the process of elimination, we found our trail, and with huge sighs of relief, we set off for the car.

All went well, until we got back to the main trail. And again, we found ourselves at a loss – what seemed like one trail leading out, turned into about four possible trails leading back. Did I mention that the main trails look exactly like hoof tracks? Again, we tried one after another, and none looked or felt right. There was one trail we couldn’t try – three bison had decided it was a great nap spot and there was no way around them, so we finally just picked a hoof path and took off, even though we knew we were not on the right trail. We just had to commit ourselves to a direction and go, risks and all, and hope it got us close to where we wanted to be. (Yes, I know, all advice says stay put, but trust me, that was not the best option in this case!)

It was a very humbling experience, but it was also very empowering. We knew that if we kept trying, we would eventually find our way out. But if we panicked, or if we froze, or if we waited for someone else to come along and rescue us, it could have been very bad. We had to step out in faith, and take the risk that even if it we weren’t on the best path, it would still get us where we wanted to go. Needless to say, we made it out, and we felt awesome!

These are confusing times for the church. By now we’ve figured out that if we stay right where we are, that’s not a good thing. But there is no clear path forward. Instead there are many paths, many directions, and we have no guarantee which one will get us where we want to go, that is, if we even know where we want to go. What worked for us was that we knew the general direction we needed to go, and even if we weren’t right on the right path, if we kept as straight a path as we could, we would eventually find our way out.

In the church, we may not know exactly which way to go, what to do, or what “program” to follow. But we do know the general direction we need to go. I would draw your attention to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 as a good guide: seek to make peace with others, walk humbly in this land, show mercy to all, offer grace to all, work for justice, right wrongs when you can, care for others, keep your word, love your enemies, give generously. If we, individually and as congregations, go further and further down that path, then I believe that we will eventually find ourselves where God desires us to be, and let me tell you – not only will it feel awesome when you realize you’re heading the right way, but you’ll be able to look back at where you’ve come and see the beautiful footprints you have left behind in the lives of others.


International Churches Know How to Welcome

I just got back late, late Monday night (or technically, very early Tuesday morning!) from a week-long trip to Costa Rica for some Sabbath time. While there, I visited one of our pastors who serves an English-speaking international church, Escazu Christian Fellowship, in San Jose. (Check out their website: http://www.ecfcr.net/index/Welcome.html).

International churches are unique animals, often made up of people from many different countries from around the world, who have moved to their new country for business. Many come for 5 years or so and then move on, others end up staying for 20-30 years. What they all have in common, though, is that they know that it is important to be part of a community, and they waste no time in joining in. They won’t wait one or two years before deciding to join in, because they know that they may only be there for a few years anyway. They jump in right away. And they invite others in quickly too.

Four of us visited this church last Sunday. We got there a little early and were immediately recognized as visitors, but that didn’t stop one woman from enlisting our aid in putting up a welcome banner almost as soon as we walked in the door. To welcome us, she said! A little later, someone else came up and introduced herself and welcomed us, and engaged us in conversation. While I was apart from the rest of the group someone else introduced himself and engaged me in conversation. After church, several people stayed and visited with us, and because we were all standing and not sitting around tables, it was easy for people to move in and out of conversation with us. It wasn’t overbearing, but there was none of that awkwardness that sometimes happens when we have visitors (should we say hi? Should we introduce ourselves? What will we talk about!?!). It was genuinely welcoming.

As I reflect on that experience, I think I would say that one of the unique things about international churches is that the members know that wherever they are, they are only there for a short time. It is where they are at the moment, and they take full advantage of that moment to belong, to be involved, and to welcome others. Jesus reminded us in his great prayer in John 17 that we “do not belong to this world.” We are just sojouners here for a time. But we are called to live that time fully, for the glory of God, welcoming others into the fellowship of believers. That is what I experienced at Escazu Christian Fellowship, and I hope that is what all visitors find when they visit our churches as well.


Incarnational Prayer

As a follow-up to my last post, I share with you a Celtic “Breastplate Prayer” from Fursa of Ireland, 7th century, that Len Sweet tweeted yesterday. A breastplate prayer is a prayer that asks for God’s protection. There is such a physicality to these celtic prayers that it is hard for me not to both feel Christ’s/God’s presence and to want to be that for others.

The arms of God be around my shoulders,
The touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
The sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
The sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
The fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
The vision of heaven’s company in my eyes,
The conversation of heaven’s company on my lips,
The work of God’s Church in my hands,
The service of God and the neighbour in my feet,
A home for God in my heart,
And to God, the Father of all, my entire being. Amen.

As we come to Easter and celebrate the resurrection of the one who was incarnated in a human body for us, let us reflect on what it means after Easter for us to now be the body of Christ in the world.


Incarnational Churches

Been doing a lot of thinking about the missional church – so what else is new? 🙂 More specifically, thinking about Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk’s book The Missional Leader, Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread, and Margaret Feinberg’s book The Organic God.

It seems to be that what these three very different books have in common is the importance of the incarnation. In The Missional Church Fred and Alan issue a call to action, a call to be passionate, to be involved in the life of our communities, the life of our churches, and the life of our members. In Take This Bread, Sara speaks of the deep calling to be incarnational in ministry with the hungry in San Francisco, to be the feet, the hands, the eyes, the ears, the heart of Christ in more ways than just handing out food, but to eat and drink and share and give together. In The Organic God, Margaret also talks about the call to a Christian life as living an incarnational life, touching others with real hands, entering someone else’s world, connecting with others in deep meaningful ways.

As I think about the challenge we face as a church today, the answer is seeming more and more simple. To be the church, to be followers of Jesus Christ, to live a Christian life, to be fruitful in that life, is to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ for others – touching with real hands, feeding with real food, sitting with real people, taking time to listen, to care, to help, to get out of our four walls, and to be the body of Christ in something more than a symbolic way.

There is power in that kind of a connection and ministry, power that is lost when we pull in and close ourselves off, power that is lost when we focus solely on survival of our own. When we get outside of ourselves, literally and figuratively, God’s power is unleashed in often surprising and powerful ways, and because of that, lives are changed.

What will it take for you, and your church, to be more incarnational? In a big way? Yes – I said BIG – we are beyond the time when thinking small will do much. I firmly believe that God calls us to big things, risky things, after all, that’s what the incarnation was to begin with – God giving up all the privileges and power of God’s own self, becoming one of us, even to the point of dying on a cross – when we answer that call to risk big, and to keep risking big for the sake of the world God loves, we will bear much fruit.