Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Thoughts on Departing My Call with the Vermont Conference, UCC

Friends, I wrote this article for the weekly e-newsletter of the Vermont Conference during my last week there. My call ended on September 30, 2017, and I began a new call as the Pastor of Atkinson Congregational Church in Atkinson NH on October 15, 2017.

Well, here it is, friends, my last e-kit article. It's ok, you can cheer, I can't hear you!

When I began at the Vermont Conference more than 13 years ago, my then position description contained lots of things I was supposed to do - and that list barely overlaps with my current call agreement. It's amazing to me how my position has evolved over the years. As I reminisce a bit, however, the evolution makes sense.

When I went to interview for the position of Conference Administrator (thanks Pam!) I entered a room with no less than 15 people assembled to conduct the interview. Well, isn't this interesting, I thought. I learned something about how the staff (there were 10 of us then!)  and the  leadership communicated and understood trust. It was a fun interview for me - I had no plans to accept the position, and thus felt rather, umm, unrestrained in my responses. I'll be darned if that didn't seem to play well.

Here are some of the things that weren't in my original position description: Stewardship, Church Growth, Church Vitality, Governance, preaching in churches, and leadership retreats. How they came to be part of my work can be attributed to a single word: covenant.

I made it my mission to raise up the bond between local church and wider church. If the local church didn't see any 'value added' in a relationship with the Conference, why have one? We were well past the time when the Conference and national setting of the church could 'expect' financial support because 'it was the right thing to do' or out of some sense of obligation. I thought (and continue to think) we need to earn it. So when a local church asked for help with Stewardship, I worked to become well versed enough on the subject to share something with others. As an old mentor of mine once said, "If you think you know a subject well, try teaching it to others. That'll tell you something."  I found churches hungry for help, and saw that an in-person visit with a local church giving assistance was the quickest route to improved relationship and covenant.

As time passed other skill sets evolved, eventually working their way into my actual position description. I owe a debt of gratitude to leadership that was willing to indulge my extracurricular activities and embrace them as part of my portfolio when it was found to be something our churches needed and fit the mission of the Conference.

Forgive me for what, as I read it, sounds a bit self-indulgent. The point I'm trying to make is this: In a time when churches as a whole have become more insular, the wider church needs to ensure that its efforts provide something the local church actually wants and needs. Mutual covenant and support grows from a symbiotic relationship in which each side contributes and benefits. The current buzz word is inter-dependence, which I guess is fine, but I think covenantal still works well too.

A few years ago Carole Carlson and I developed and taught a UCC polity course which focused on polity from the local church's perspective - and the tug of war between autonomy and covenant. Our churches tend to be more familiar with the autonomy part ("You're not the boss of me!") than they are the covenant aspect. But from the very beginning the mostly unchecked power of the local church inherent in congregational polity was balanced by an understanding of mutual support, relationship, and responsibility with other churches and a wider structure. That relationship needs to be continually exercised to remain strong and vital.

My friends, let me leave you with this thought. Local churches - nurture your relationship with your association, conference, and the United Church of Christ. There are things we can do together that no church can do alone, and skill sets you require that won't be available in-house. And my dear Vermont Conference, always be listening, always be responsive, always seek to provide the churches what they need - free of the institutional quicksand that can make you slow to grasp and evolve.

Many of you have reached out to me with a personal note. I have, alas, not been able to respond to them all. Please know that I cherished each of them. It's been a wonderful 13 years. Thank you all for your love, encouragement and support. I return to the local church from whence I came, answering a call to return to parish ministry. But a piece of my heart will always remain with you.



Saturday, September 23, 2017

Lately I've been spending some time with Psalm 46. Well, actually, just a portion of verse 10: Be still and know that I am God! 

Jesus understood the 'be still' part. Throughout his ministry he sought solitude and quiet places to pray.

Matthew 14:22-23 (The Message)
As soon as the meal was finished, he insisted that the disciples get in the boat and go
 on ahead to the other side while he dismissed the people. With the crowd dispersed, he climbed the mountain so he could be by himself and pray. He stayed there alone, late into the night.

Mark 1:35-37 (NRSV)
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you."

Luke 5:15-16 (The Message)
Soon a large crowd of people had gathered to listen and be healed of their ailments. As often as possible Jesus withdrew to out-of-the-way places for prayer.

John 6:15 (NRSV) (after feeding the 5,000)
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Four different Gospels. Four stories from different points in Jesus' ministry. One commonality: Jesus valued quiet, solitary time for reflection and prayer and renewal. Jesus was, I'm pretty sure, an introvert. You pastors who are introverts and yet still are able to stand up in front of a congregation every Sunday know what I'm talking about. And the toll that forced extroversion can have. (e.g. Preachers Sunday Afternoon Nap)

Sometimes people tell me that although we proclaim that God is Still Speaking, they're not hearing anything. I believe that God IS still speaking, but I think we've forgotten how to listen, because listening happens best in solitude, in quiet, in prayer. Which, not coincidentally, is completely at odds with our noisy, frantic, regimented world. Our cell phones, laptops, Netflix, and hyper scheduled children all conspire to keep us busy - and inattentive.

Aristotle had it right when he said "The goal of action is contemplation." It's OK to be busy, and we have accomplished much in our busyness, but being busy is not the end to itself.

In September our churches rev back up, with Church School beginning, adult education opportunities starting, Advent planning underway, and we are over programmed and over committed. Please remember to also plan to Be Still - to set aside quiet time that shall not be otherwise scheduled - at least temporarily and occasionally. I invite you to set aside time for solitude, for quiet, for reflection, for prayer. See if perhaps it isn't easier to hear if we're really listening. Create a space where you can invite our Still Speaking God to communicate in the voice we can only hear when quiet and undistracted. 

After all, it worked for Jesus.



Thursday, June 1, 2017

Generational Stewardship

Working with churches from all over the Conference, I get to see firsthand how our polity informs (or, rather, doesn’t inform) how we do basic bedrock functions such as governance or stewardship. So many differences. What is also interesting is the way in which some things are consistent no matter how we organize ourselves.

I’m thinking about stewardship in particular. One of the areas of congregational life that is undergoing a significant change is how we ‘do’ Stewardship, from annual pledge drives to capital campaigns and planned giving. I attended a workshop titled “Generational Differences in Stewardship Development,” led by Rev. Susan Snook, Church Planter for the Episcopal Church. She made the point very well that how we do Stewardship for the younger generations (later baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials) has to be different than the way we’re used to. You cannot use the same voice to speak to all and expect all to hear. The GI/Silent/”Greatest” generations, particularly after World War II, valued strong institutions. They dove in and participated and financially supported for reasons such as:

  • To meet societal expectations
  • For Institution building, teamwork, or responsibility
  • To pay their fair share
  • Or to leave a legacy
When doing stewardship with younger generations, asking them to “fulfill their obligation” is not going to find a receptive audience. What other things do we know about them?

  • They are hard working and have complex schedules. (as do their kids)
  • Their time is often more precious than money.
  • They need to understand the congregation’s vision, not the budget. They value transparency – over half will not connect to an organization unless they feel a personal connection or trust in leadership.
  • They are reluctant to commit; more likely to take part in “Micro-Volunteering” than a multi-year commitment to a committee. But they do volunteer: in a 2010 survey, 79% of Millennials volunteered for organizations.
  • They are focused on mission: helping the poor, caring for the environment, and enrichment for their children. They value outreach and tangible results. 85% of Millennials said they are motivated to give by a compelling mission or cause.
If your congregation mostly exists to worship on Sunday and share fellowship, it’s not going to be very attractive to younger generations. If, instead, your congregation exists to serve – then you have a missional focus that will connect with them and be valued. And that value will express itself in participation and financial support.

Let me say it this way: if you speak with one voice to multiple generations, at least some of them will not hear you. The irony is that despite being perhaps the best positioned mainline denomination (in terms of polity and theology) to connect with Millennials, we do so poorly, because we speak to them as though they are their grandparents.

And really, I’m not just talking about stewardship anymore. But I’ll bet you knew that.

One last thing: If the only way to make a financial contribution on Sunday morning is by a plate being passed around, you really shouldn’t expect Millennials to give. Most of them don’t carry much cash or a checkbook. There is no better reason for promoting electronic giving (including a QR code in your bulletin) than that.



Friday, May 19, 2017

Over the course of a year, I get to visit many congregations; sharing worship, teaching a workshop, leading retreats, and more. Sometimes I leave these interactions a bit depressed at the navel gazing and hand wringing. Other times, I can sense the excitement and commitment to discipleship that will ensure a healthy future. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I'm not sure how to define Congregational Vitality, but I know it when I see it.

When I speak about Vitality, one of the ways that I recommend to nurture it is by reconnecting to the community in mission and ministry. Dr. Lovett Weems Jr. of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership points out that the longer a congregation exists, the less connected it tends to be with its community.

New congregations have to pay attention to trends and demographics to ensure their survival. As congregations become settled and stable and larger, their focus invariably shifts from reaching new disciples to caring for current members. It's a shift from external sensitivity to internal focus. The longer a congregation exists, the more disconnected it can become. That's not good news for our churches, now averaging almost 200 years old.

Churches that seek a renewed sense of vitality can often find it by reengaging their communities, finding a renewed passion and purpose in serving others. Moreover, this mission and ministry can become an important new entry point for both participation in the life of the church and financial support. Time and again I see examples of our churches that are receiving significant financial support from members of the community they serve - from those who are not members or even attendees of worship. This support comes when the congregation establishes itself as a spiritual and literal force for good; where the congregation is perceived as 'value added' to the community at large, not just its membership. These same congregations are, by no coincidence, growing numerically. It's important to note that this is mission and ministry done 'with' your community, not 'to' or 'for' your community. It's a partnership.

Imagine then, my delight after a visit with the Waitsfield United Church of Christ recently to talk about their stewardship campaign. This is a congregation that through regular community meals and a myriad of other ways has successfully reengaged their community. They are, just a few months in, very close to reaching their Capital Campaign stretch goal of $375,000. This will be added to more than $260,000 in grant monies already awarded to improve their facility to better meet the needs of their community.

Here's the part I don't want you to miss. About 25% of the contributors, and more than 50% of the total funds, came from people unaffiliated with the congregation. Let that sink in for a bit. A congregation that is seen as an important, contributing partner to the community in which they reside can expect significant financial support from that community. It can also expect growth in attendance and participation. It's not WHY you reengage your community, but it is an anticipated positive result.

To return to Dr. Weems, he invites you to ask yourself this question: "If your church closed today, who would miss it other than your members?"

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Our Church Shouldn't Be Political!

At least, that’s what I hear. One of the churches I am assisting in the search and call process, at a conversation about what they dreamed and hoped for in a new pastor said, “We want relevant sermons that speak to our daily lives – but we don’t want a pastor who is political. That’s not the church’s place.”

I pushed back a bit, wondering what they meant by that. And countered with the idea that the church has always been political – the history of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and its denominational forbearers is chock full of such examples. Reading the list of UCC Firsts on the denominational website is a pretty good primer on this. The Pilgrims landed on our shores to escape persecution and for religious freedom. Moreover, they organized churches using ‘congregational’ polity, a democratic, self-governing form of organization that became a model for the democratic government that would eventually form.

The idea of freedom of the press was formed when the Congregationalists formed the first publishing house in the new world, Pilgrim Press. Then there was the first stand against slavery. And acts of civil disobedience (the Boston Tea Party was inspired by thousands protesting unfair taxes at Old South Meeting House).

If you’ve been connected to the UCC for a while, you’re listing along with me. There was the ordination of the first African American pastor by a Protestant denomination. A Reformed church hiding the Liberty Bell under its floorboards to protect it from the British. Organizing to free the Amistad slaves, and later the formation of the American Missionary Association – the first anti-slavery society in the U.S. with multiracial leadership. Then there was the first theological school to admit women, and also the Social Gospel, which denounced injustice and exploitation of the poor.
In the 1950’s, at the request of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the UCC organized and won in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. The decision led to a proliferation of people of color in television studios and newsrooms.

Following that, there was the ordination of the first openly gay pastor, support for marriage equality, emphatic response to the Love Canal disaster, and so much more.

And it’s not just the UCC, of course. The people of God have always been called to speak truth to power, to bring injustice to light, to seek fairness and wholeness. See: Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, among others.

I hope I didn’t exhaust you with all that. But I make no apologies for being a church engaged in political discourse. Being civically involved is part of our DNA. We don’t take off our Christian cloak when we exit the sanctuary on Sunday morning. We are called to live as disciples all 168 hours of the week.  That doesn’t mean we are ever to be partisan, recent signing by our President to the contrary. We are called to participation but not to endorsements of persons or parties. We are called to speak to issues, not individuals.

As a church.

Everyone is of course entitled to their opinions, even your pastor, but that doesn’t mean the pastor gets to, in robe and stole, endorse a candidate for office on behalf of, or representing, your congregation. And no one else gets to either.

I went on a bit of a rant, I confess. And when I was done, I asked if I had helped to clarify things a bit. “Oh, yes,” was the response. “I understand. I suppose political is fine. But can we find someone who does it without being controversial?”



Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Here's to the Doubters!

The Lectionary (which many of our churches follow) is a three year cycle of biblical exploration, following the themes of the church year, and seeking to put together a Hebrew Scripture, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel reading that seem to fit each other.

In the midst of all this diversity, Easter 2 (the Sunday after Easter) in the Lectionary is always John 20:19-31, the story of so called "Doubting" Thomas. Poor guy. We know he was a dedicated zealot who followed this interesting and unorthodox rabbi around the countryside, thinking perhaps this was the Messiah, the one who would lead a revolt to remove the Roman occupiers from their land. Thomas was the disciple who, when Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, said to the other disciples, "Come along. We might as well die with him."

In John's Gospel, Jesus visits the disciples (minus Thomas) that Easter evening and shows them his hands and side, and they believe and are filled with joy. When they tell Thomas what they saw, he made his famous assertion "Unless I see the nail marks on his hands..."  Eight days later, with Thomas in attendance, Jesus appears again.

What is Jesus' reaction to Thomas? Does he scold him, mock him, or berate him? No, none of these.

He simply, and lovingly, gives Thomas what he needs. No "You're fired, Thomas!" or "You're off the team Thomas!" And yet Thomas is labelled Doubting Thomas, even though all he asked for was the exact thing all the other disciples wanted and needed and received in order to believe. They certainly didn't take the word of Mary Magdalene.

The further I travel on my Christian walk, the more I understand how little I actually know. And I'm ok with that. What I do know is that Jesus does not judge my uncertainty, and embraces me in the midst of my doubts, trying to give me what I need. And I despair a bit for those who have all the answers. Because that seems to leave little room for epiphanies and growth. A static faith seems a dead one to me.

So, thank you Thomas! Thank you for being the disciple who shows us that we don't have to pretend to have all the answers. Thank you for being the disciple who Jesus uses to tell all of us that we aren't to be shunned for being uncertain. Thank you for letting me know I am good company.

And thank you Jesus.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Thought for today...

Thomas Powers tells this story:

The composer Stravinsky had written a new piece with a difficult violin passage. After it had been in rehearsal for several weeks the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said he was sorry, he had tried his best, the passage was too difficult and no violinist could play it. Stravinsky said, “I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it.” While this conversation took place between a musician and a composer, it could have taken place between God and a disciple.

Disciple: I’m sorry but the part you have given me to play in life is much too difficult. I’m doing my best and yet it is still too difficult. I am not good enough.

God: I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying their best to live the life that has been given them.

Live your life today. The best that you can. And know that it's enough.


(thanks to my friend Tara Barber for sharing this story with me)

Friday, January 29, 2016

Energy consumed looking to your past is energy stolen from your future!

I am part of many social media groups, on everything from restoring old engines to groups where pastors can have a dialog about things with other pastors. One interaction from the latter group caught my attention this past weekend. A pastor of an urban church was upset that the county had scheduled a marathon for Sunday morning, for which the route went by the church, impacting the ability of folks to get to worship. They were forced to reschedule worship for Sunday evening.

Helpful pastors from all over chimed in – they saw this as an opportunity for ministry – perhaps providing a water station for runners, or praying for them as they passed. Others saw it as a way to minister ‘outside the box’ or practice some evangelism. It’s a sad habit of pastors – we’re often in ‘fix’ mode when we should be in listening or considering mode.

Well, this pastor would have none of these fixes. He did not want to affirm the decision to run the marathon on a Sunday morning, a time once reserved for churches, even while others continued to affirm an opportunity in the marathon. I marveled at the sense of entitlement – somewhat taken aback at the idea that there were still mainline pastors who believed we had some special hold on Sunday mornings.

And the church held their Sunday worship service in the evening. It was lightly attended. But during the marathon? When thousands lined the streets? The church sat cold, empty, silent, and dark. Yes, rather like a tomb.

There was a time in our culture when Blue Laws and the like reserved Sunday morning for churches. Such laws and social conventions prohibited people from doing much of anything else.

I’m hoping you’ve noticed; that time has passed. Now, you can choose to tilt at these windmills, or you can choose to acknowledge that our culture has changed. We must change church culture as well if we want to be relevant for rest of the 21st century. But it will be about this basic choice: You can be outraged and try to re-establish long dead entitlements, or you can learn how to offer extravagant hospitality and a wide welcome to your whole community. Do you see it? Instead of using laws and social conventions to force people in, we will have to be relevant, noticed, and be a place people are transformed.

It goes without saying, but I guess I will say it anyway, that if that church actually served that neighborhood, getting to church wouldn’t have been an issue anyway.

You’ve probably heard this from me before but here it is:

All of the energy your congregation consumes trying to recapture your past is energy stolen from your future.

Be attuned to the ways your congregation attempts to hold onto the past. If you are using a lot of energy, is it energy you will need for tomorrow’s ministry?  Help the church break free from habits that no longer serve your mission well (even if it feels like it serves you well).

Learn to let go, and:
·       Pray.
·       And Listen.
·       And Hear what great things are in store for you.

Along with the Center for Progressive Renewal, I believe our best days are ahead - if you’re willing to risk – to be uprooted – to be open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit. Church must always be in transition. It always has. And that’s OK. Because we know our Rock and Redeemer guides us and grounds us.



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wondering on the Ways We Worship...

Perhaps the best part of my call with the Vermont Conference is the time I spend directly interacting with our churches. When 2014 ends, I will have visited more than three dozen of you this year, preaching and sharing worship in more than 20 different churches.

The diversity of worship expressions around the Conference is something I wish you all could see. There are the 'liturgical' churches, where every prayer is an opportunity for reading responsively, with multi-page bulletins in color. And others where the congregation mainly receives rather than participates. Some are careful to include the words to every corporate prayer, not assuming that every visitor will know the words to The Lord's Prayer. Musical expressions vary widely, from majestic pipe organs and electronic organs, to pianos and Clavinovas, to strings and brass and guitars. Projecting on screens or walls during worship is gaining ground. Some sermons are relatively short, some much longer. In some churches the sermon is the central focal point of worship; in others, it seems to be prayers of the people and the pastoral prayer. Some celebrate communion weekly, some monthly, and a few quarterly.

Here's the interesting thing. In all this diversity, I could not begin to tell you which liturgical practices are 'right' and which are 'wrong.' Because there's no such thing. Most seem to work in their contextual setting, fitting the congregation that gathers in its own way.

Moreover, I would posit that it's challenging to know from the 'inside' which parts of worship the assembled find most compelling. It is as difficult as looking directly into your own eyes. Because you ARE that.

When Tom Harty and I began as co-pastors in Randolph Center, we added the Passing of the Peace to our weekly liturgy. In the beginning, the congregation participated stiffly, almost grudgingly, rarely moving from their pews. In time it gained wider acceptance, but the change came gradually, nearly imperceptibly. The time for Passing the Peace grew longer and longer, people travelling further and further from their pews, until one day I realized that everyone made contact with everyone else, and the interaction went well beyond "Peace be with you."

Well, this wouldn't do. It was taking too long! It was threatening to cut into my sermon time! I wanted to get a bell to keep on the pulpit which I could ring and train them (Thanks, Pavlov!) to return to their seats on command. This was just too successful. Harrumph. 

One mid-winter Sunday after church, as I was grumbling about the Passing of the Peace, an elderly widow took me aside and gently said to me, "Jim, sometimes Sunday morning is the only time I get out of my house all week. This is the one place where I get some human touch."


Now, I would have told you that I suspected that my carefully crafted liturgy or inspiring and challenging sermon was the part of worship that was most valued. But, at least for one woman, it was fellowship, community, and the sharing of appropriate physical contact.

So, I wonder. Why do you worship the way you do? When's the last time you seriously deconstructed your liturgy to know what people find meaningful and cherished? Are the booming pipes (organ or pastor) it? Or the quiet spaces for reflection? Is everything in worship a prelude to an invitation to the table? Something else?

And, perhaps, two harder questions. Are the things important to you also the things that might be important to visitors and seekers? Is your worship designed for your insiders, or those you haven't met yet?

Stay tuned - we'll soon be announcing information about 
Recalculating the Way II coming in March. Rev Mike Piazza will be the keynote, and we will explore worship as our topic. 

Blessings to you and yours this holiday season.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Are We an Institution or a Movement?

Two weeks ago I attended the National Church Leadership Institute (NCLI) in Atlanta GA. The conference was hosted by the Center for Progressive Renewal (CPR). CPR is the organization the Vermont Conference has begun a long term relationship with to help equip our churches and pastors for mission and ministry.

The theme of this year's conference was "Finding Our Way Again," apropos since Brian McLaren was the main speaker and that is the title of one of his books. Brian is a great writer and an engaging speaker. He shared too much to try to summarize here, so I'll pick one point and expound a bit.

Brian, in one of his presentations, explained about the difference between institutions and movements, and how they come about and how they are changed. Institutions are, by nature, defenders of the status quo - they have a system and processes and direction and changing that from within is hard. Movements, on the other hand, aren't burdened by history or tradition - they are trying a new thing, trying a new way, trying to upset the status quo.

Movements generally have three outcomes:
- They wither and die, unable to sustain momentum
- They become accepted, and eventually become an institution themselves, or
- They cause significant change in an existing institution.

What does this mean to us? Well, it would take only a cursory look at the history of the UCC and its predecessor bodies to see how movements for change (abolitionists, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, ordination of women, et al) eventually became part of who we are as a denomination. You might carry that a step further and see how we as a denomination could be seen as a movement to society at large - eventually affecting change in a much broader sense. (I'm not asserting that the UCC gets the credit for all social justice ever - but we do have a history of being on the leading edge of such change - which is where the movements are)

That part is exciting and affirming. Here's the not-so-affirming part. Our churches, associations and your Conference are, you guessed it, institutions. That's why change is so hard. We're not built to be nimble; but to defend, to protect, to continue as we are. A review of mainline Protestantism in the second half of the 20th century makes this all too clear. As our culture changed and swirled around us, we become more steadfast, more resolute, more insular, hoping the latest church growth program would solve all our ills. We know now that each successive program was designed to try to bend the culture back to us, rather than the other way around. And therein is the answer on why they didn't work.

So, what to do? I think two choices are before us: either we start being an institution that acts like a movement, or we find ways to embrace and accept fundamental change from the emerging movements sprouting up around us. We have to retire from leadership the folks who assert "We've always done it that way!" and instead invite younger people into positions of leadership, even if their ways are not our ways. We have to stop worshipping our buildings, and instead think of them as a tool to do mission and ministry. And acknowledge that sometimes tools wear out, or no longer are the tools we need. We have to learn to be nimble, or step back so that the nimble can lead, and stop trying to protect what once was. We have to stop trying to recapture what we once were, and use that energy to make a new future, appropriate for this time, this place. We have to cuddle up to uncomfortableness as a way of embracing change.

It's a lot to digest, I know. But we don't have forever to get started. Your Vermont Conference has begun relationships with CPR and Partners for Sacred Places for just this reason - to help us become movement-like again - to embrace change, and become the church we are meant to be in the 21st century.