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.