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.



Thursday, February 27, 2014

If Your Church Worship Feels Like a Family, You're Doing it Wrong!

Did that get your attention? Thought it might.

I read a really intriguing article on the MinistryMatters website yesterday titled Why Worship Shouldn't Feel Like Family that had me up half the night considering what it meant - and if I agreed.

 When I visit one of our churches, whether to talk about stewardship, vitality, strategic planning, or something else I almost always begin with a little icebreaker - asking folks at the table to introduce themselves and answer a couple of questions. Often, those questions are:
·         What is it you love most about your congregation?
·         What is it that you wish were different?
The number one answer to the first question (survey says!) is a variation on: our church feels like a family. And I understand that answer. A healthy church can be a place where people feel comfortable, where you are known, where you are appreciated, where you are cared for when in need, where you share fellowship. All good things.

This article, though, challenges what I think about that. The very thing that makes our churches feel like family to us can be very off-putting to someone not already in the family. Our use of shorthand (abbreviations and acronyms that only insiders will understand), our handling of church business during announcements, and how we pass the peace and vocalize prayers concerns can all be very disorienting to a newcomer, especially an unchurched person.

I spoke with a person recently who had been away from church since they were very young, returning after a three decade absence. She was essentially unchurched, having been shuffled off to Sunday school instead of ever actually experiencing worship as a child. She spoke of how unwelcoming worship felt when time came for the Lord's Prayer, and the Gloria Patri, and the Doxology, how everyone else began speaking or singing - and all the bulletin listed was the title. What was she to do with that? She moved her lips and mumbled, hoping no one would notice she don't know the secret code or password that everyone else seemed to. She didn't go back. She felt like an outsider.

That's just one example. Now, the article doesn't say (and neither am I) that your church home feeling like a family is a bad thing. But perhaps we shouldn't worship that way. Worship, after all, is not an hour long opportunity each week to hang out with your friends (or family). There are other times in our church life to do that. Worship is an intentional act of devotion toward God. Moreover, it prepares us to serve a hurting world beyond our doors - prepares us for the work of discipleship.  

When someone new comes to your place of worship (instead of you finding them) it's a wonderful thing. And all our churches, if asked, would say that they are a very hospitable and welcoming group. But there's more to it than handing them a bulletin, helping them find a pew, and smothering them during the passing of the peace. If they've never been in a church before, they will be shocked at what happens over the next hour. And little of it may make sense to a newcomer when we assume everyone knows certain things.  

So this week, I invite you to view how you worship through the eyes of an outsider. Consider an unchurched teenager. Or a Boomer who hasn't seen a church since their youth. Will they feel welcome? Are there unspoken cues in your worship that undermine what it says on the front of your bulletin  - that no matter who you are and where you are on life's journey, that you are welcome here?

To read the article, follow this link. (be careful if you read the comments following, sometimes church folk aren't very nice. Most people missed that he didn't say church shouldn't feel like family - just that we shouldn't worship like one)

Then come on over to the Conference Facebook page, and let's discuss. (or leave a comment here)



Where Will Our Next Pastor Come From?

If your congregation has a settled pastor, this may not be the question at the forefront of your congregation's thoughts... but perhaps it should be.

The mainline church is in the midst of significant change, but that's not news anymore. One of the often overlooked components of that change is what the future of pastoral leadership looks like. Here are some startling facts: 
·         80% of all authorized ministers in the UCC are over age 50.
·         Only 6% of all authorized ministers are under age 40.
·         From 1992 to 2012, the number of employed ordained ministers decreased by more than 1,300.
·         Licensed Ministers now account for 9% of all authorized ministers.
·         There is some good news - the number of female pastors is up to 46%. (although they are, on average, still paid less than their male counterparts)
·         70% of all UCC churches have a worship attendance of less than 100.
·         Here in Vermont, only about 1/3 of our churches have a full time pastor.

So, most of our pastors are over 50 years old, opportunities for full time pastorates have declined significantly, but even so there aren't enough new pastors in the pipeline to offset the massive upcoming retirements. Starting to think this is something to pay attention to?

The way we 'make' pastors is getting a lot of attention these days. I don't think our denomination's appreciation for a learned clergy is going away anytime soon, in fact I think the 4+3 (undergrad degree plus a Master's of Divinity) education model as part of a Member in Discernment process should remain the normative one.  And yet, there are significant obstacles before us, including:
·      With fewer churches who can afford one, there are limited opportunities for newly minted ordained pastors to be called to a full time pastorate.
·      Many seminarians graduate with more than $100K in total college debt, and face decades of student loan payments.
·      Local Church Pastor is not always the first career choice - even for those attending seminary.

At the United Church of Christ General Synod this past summer, one of the resolutions we considered tried to address at least part of this systemic problem. It was the resolution that sparked the most debate, more than mountaintop mining and divestment from fossil fuels and all the others. The initial resolution draft called for the establishment of a sixth all-church offering to be used for financial assistance for seminarians swimming in debt. In one of the closest votes at Synod, the resolution language was changed from "an annual all-church offering and other possible funding initiatives" to "an annual all-church offering or other possible funding initiatives." The amendment passed with 51.3% of the votes in favor. Our General Minister and President was for the amendment, stating that requiring a sixth offering would "tie the Collegium's hands...". The national setting of the church is working on options that will likely be brought to the next General Synod in 2015.

While the urgent matters before our churches call to us with loud voices, we cannot allow them to drown out the important matters that are also before us. Multiple Paths to Ordination and Licensed Ministry will have an important role as we go forward, but they are a partial solution to a larger challenge. How will we provide a continuum of support to those called to pastoral ministry to ensure that they are well prepared and unburdened as they begin their calling?

So, do you know where your next pastor is going to come from? It's not a rhetorical question.



Sunday, February 23, 2014

Facts, Truths, Future?

Somehow I appointed myself "Fact Checker of the Internet." When one of my friends forwards an email, or posts on Facebook something that doesn't look right; off I go to Snopes or other places in an attempt to verify. And I know I'm not always completely gracious when my suspicions are correct. I do think we have an obligation to ensure what we say (or forward) is correct.

Now, I'm not talking about debating opinions. You can malign the President's performance, or do the same for the Tea Party, and you'll get nary a twitch out of me. We're entitled to our opinions, even if they're wrong. And with a Facebook friends list that is comprised of military veterans, industrialists, and progressive church folks, my page is a very interesting intersection. Almost anything I post makes someone unhappy. Which is why some days I stick to cat videos.

But facts are important. When we are barraged by information from 24 hour news channels, and websites and emails, it's easy to become an unwittingly complicit information consumer, or, if you will, a lazy acceptor of things-with-which-I-want-to-agree-whether-factual-or-not.

Remember what Honest Abe said (Happy Birthday Mr. President!):

But truth be told, I'm much more concerned about your faith than your facts. We can be very busy in our churches with worship and mission and ministries and such. But I wonder if the busyness keeps us from asking ourselves the important questions: How is our faith? How are our souls? How are our communities of faith a respite from our culture rather than trying desperately to mirror it? How does the time we spend together change ourselves and our world?

There are all sorts of ideas about how to attract young people - to call to us the generations lost. Maybe we could start with this: a willingness to have an open conversation with them about what we believe and our faith and our doubts, rather than an emphatic recitation of the facts as we think they are. To share our truths - our Good News - instead of our doctrine. To share the richness and fullness of a life as a follower of Jesus than exacting certitudes about how our way is the best way. To not simply hear but attentively listen and respond.

Are we yet malleable? Do we have room to consider and ponder and grow and change? Are willing to accept into our midst those who may challenge our facts while acknowledging our truths? Do we really want new people who will challenge our understanding of worship and even church itself as they mold it into something that works for their generation?

I hope so. I think it's the way forward.