Tag Archives: ministry

Putting My Jesus Feminism to the Test

mi728x“Well, you could just have a baby.”

I hated it when people said that to my wife.

There was a time when people would regularly make this suggestion to her. She was unemployed, or the technical term in our denomination “without call”, at the time. We were hoping that there would be a position for a pastor or chaplain coming available close to where we were living, because we both wanted to be following our call to work for Jesus in the church. While the baby comment was probably offered with the kindest of intentions, the underlying idea was that her vocation as a pastor could be, and likely should be, easily set aside for the womanly vocation of motherhood.

My wife took all these comments in stride and with grace, eventually she would jokingly say, “This is the worst time to have a baby, I am unemployed and have student loans to pay”.

My wife could make a joke, but I was never impressed, and these comments bothered me. They still bother me when I think about them.

____________

When my wife and I decided to get married, we were living 1000 miles apart, serving congregations in different provinces and synods. We had been seminary classmates, but only started dating a few years after we graduated. We informed our Bishops of our desire to be serving in the same area, so that we could live together when we got married. We were willing to go anywhere.

In the year of our engagement, waiting and hoping for possibilities to open up, we eventually decided to both move. I was called to serve a congregation 100km from my first church, where there were promises of imminent openings for Courtenay, either in parish ministry or chaplaincy. It was just a matter of time.

I was being a given a fairly prestigious opportunity. The largest church in the synod (district/diocese etc…) wanted to call me as their Senior Pastor. This was pretty much unheard of – a 29-year-old pastor with 3 years experience in a small rural congregation becoming the senior pastor of a flagship congregation.

Many colleagues let me know that I had been given a big opportunity and that I had made it to the real show now. Some were concerned that the work load would be too much. Some felt the struggles that the congregation had been having for the last few years were too much for me to deal with. Others thought I would receive a wake up call once I got there. Still others weren’t sure I could manage such a large, multi-staff congregation, with so little experience. All my predecessors had been much older and more experienced pastors. I even heard through the grape-vine that accepting a call like that, to a congregation like that, was surely a sign that I was setting myself up to be a Bishop.

The congregation had contacted me in November, and it took until June before I actually moved. 3 months before our wedding, I started my ministry as the 29-year-old, engaged to be married Senior Pastor of a large Lutheran Church. And this whole time, these promised, imminent options had not become available… there was still no call or position for Courtenay.

__________

“Now listen here Missy! You leave the business and management of this church up to us. You just deal with the ministry.”

My wife has told me about many sexist, ageist comments she has received in her time as a pastor, but that one pisses me off the most.

I always had to hear about the comments from a distance, so when we got married and moved to the same place, the comments started coming for different reasons. They were patronizing statements masquerading as support:

“You will just have to wait because Pastor Erik has a call.”

“Maybe you can get a job somewhere else, there are lots of other jobs around”

“We hope that something comes open for you, because we really like your husband.”

“You could just have a baby, we would love that here.”

“It must be nice to be able to be at home all day.”

“You could come lead the ladies’ bible study or sing in the choir, those are pastor-y things.”

“We will pray that God helps you” (for my wife to see that she should be supporting my call)

“That is just the way older men talk to women, they don’t know any different.”

The worst was when friends and colleagues offered some of this unhelpful advice. As Courtenay was waiting for a call to parish ministry or chaplaincy, many people: family, friends, colleagues, parishioners would try to be supportive.

But so often, their words ended up minimizing my wife’s call to ministry. Somehow my call, because I was a man, because I was a Senior Pastor, because I couldn’t have babies through my body had become more important. It was like God had called me double or triple, and God had given my wife options – be a lady pastor or a mom or a housewife. Those 9 years of education and the call of the church don’t really matter because your body can make babies. Oh, and you have a husband now, so you are real woman and can do womanly things.

___________________

The leadership in the congregation was aware that Courtenay and I were waiting and were unhappy. For most people it only felt like a few months. For us, the process to find two calls had begun over a year before. When after only 6 months, I informed the leadership of the congregation that we were looking at the possibility of two calls elsewhere, people were understandably upset.

Prayer meetings were called and people were genuinely concerned. So many were starting to understand the difficulty that we faced with Courtenay being without a call and unemployed. Many people were wonderfully caring. Many people prayed for God to call my wife to something.

But for some, there was an undercurrent of frustration. There was the sense that Courtenay shouldn’t complain. Her husband was serving a church after all. Wives should support their husbands, especially if their husbands are pastors.

It was even suggested to me that I get my marriage in order, that perhaps we needed marriage advice or counselling to resolve the “impasse” between us.

_________________

Here is the thing, though.

There was no impasse.

In fact, I was the one who suggested we contact another Bishop. We knew of an area where there were 5 churches in our denomination looking for pastors.

Courtenay is amazing. She loves me enough that if I asked her to wait without a call for longer, she would have. She had been waiting for a year, and it would have been at least another, maybe longer as far as we could tell. She would have waited to make me happy.

But I couldn’t bear that. Every day I got to go to the office, I felt guilty. We had made a promise to each other – we could be pastors anywhere, but only married in the same place. I was, now, breaking that promise. We were married but not both serving. Important early years of her career could slip away, sitting at home with nothing to do.

The guilt wasn’t all. I often had the feeling I was the only person taking her call as seriously as mine. I was the only who believed that God had called her to be a pastor in active ministry, just as much as God had called me. I know that sometimes pastors who want to serve in a certain city have to wait, but the limit on my wife pastoring a church was me. I couldn’t do that to her, I couldn’t ask that of her. And I felt God calling me to consider a change, a move so that we could both serve Jesus and be together. I mean, that is why we moved in the first place.

Throughout the whole experience, I could never shake the feeling that people would respond differently if our roles were reversed. I could never drop the idea that if Courtenay got a job at Starbucks, a lot of people would be okay with that. There would be outrage if it were me picking up a service industry job. It always seemed that ‘having a baby’ was a viable alternative for Courtenay to pastoral ministry, but paternity leave would be frowned upon for me. Becoming a “Pastor’s Wife was not out of the question for Courtenay, but not even in the realm of possibility for me.

________________

So Courtenay and I left, after only 9 months of being the Senior Pastor of a prestigious church. We moved to a place where we could both be pastors and serve Jesus, and Jesus’ people.

This was by far, the hardest thing I have ever had to do as Pastor, as a Christian, as a husband. It would have been much easier to go with the tide. It would have been easy to claim that my call to this prestigious church was a priority. It would have been the easy thing to do to make my wife wait, for who knows how long, to do what God was calling her to do. God was also calling her to be my wife, right? It would have been easier to buy into the privilege that so many people were implicitly offering to me, and believe my call was more important than my wife’s.

The whole way along, there were people who ‘got it’ – people who were not satisfied with other options for Courtenay. Those people were great, and we needed them. But too many others were willing to rank our calls by our genders.

Being married to another pastor has completely changed the way I understand God’s call. God can call me to do God’s work anywhere, but I can only be married to my wife where she is. Yet, maybe more importantly, being married to a wonderful woman who is also as pastor, and to a pastor who is a woman, has shown me that we aren’t there yet. We haven’t made it as a Church. Even when we have female pastors and female bishops, we still have hang-ups about women in ministry. We still see men as the ‘default’ when it comes to our image of ‘pastor’, and we are willing to unthinkingly put women’s calls into secondary categories defined by gender.

Things are slowly getting better for women in the church. My hope is that more and more church people will start to get it. My hope is that one day people saying “You have or wait” or “You can have a baby” will be just as unacceptable to tell Courtenay as it currently is to tell me. My hope is, that one day, gender won’t define pastors in the church. My hope is that all of our callings, ordained or lay, in the church, in the world, in the home will be understood as equally valid.

For more on male privilege and women in ministry:

The Heresy of Women Submitting to Men

12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

10 More Reasons Why Being  a Male Pastor is Better

12 Years a Slave – Why Women Should be Equal in the Church

A Young Male Pastor’s Thoughts on Women in Ministry

Have you own story of your Jesus Feminism being put to the test? Share in the comments or with me on twitter @ParkerErik or follow my wife @ReedmanParker

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7 Reasons Church isn’t for You

church-clip-art-2As a Pastor, a lot of people tell me their thoughts about church. My parishioners, my friends, my family, strangers, young, old and everyone in between. People tell me what they like and what they don’t like. People tell my what should be changed and how to do things differently. They tell me what they are looking for when they ‘church shop’. People tell me why they aren’t attending as often and when they plan to get back in the habit.

Like just about everything else in world, Christians and non-Christians are consuming church. More and more, churches and pastors feel pressured to attract and captivate people – code language for entertain the people into the pews.

Well… maybe I am the first to say, out loud, what a lot of pastors would like to say:

Church isn’t for you.

Here are 7 reasons why church isn’t for you:

  1. The Music isn’t for you. We all have opinions on music. Contemporary or Traditional. Praise Songs or Hymns. Piano or Organ or Worship Band. Upbeat or slowed down. Music has a powerful effect on us, and so we want to hear the music, hymns, songs, and styles we like. But the music isn’t to appease our preferences. Music supports the bible readings. Music speaks to the church season or occasion. Music is supposed to help us tell God’s story, not be the same stuff we choose to hear all week on our iPods.
  2. The Preaching isn’t for you. Preaching is supposed to be funny, interesting, and attention grabbing. Sermons should make us laugh and cry, learn and think. All in 20 minutes or less so that we are not late for lunch. Sermons are a central part of worship, and we want them to be things we want to hear. But preaching isn’t to appease our need to be entertained. Preaching opens up the scriptures to us. Preaching draws us into the unfolding story of God’s mighty deeds in the world. Preaching reminds us that we are sinners, which is hard to hear. Preaching reminds us that we are dead, which is even harder to hear. But Preaching also reminds us of God’s mercy for sinners. And Preaching reminds us of God’s promise of new life in Christ.
  3. The Building isn’t for you. Buildings are supposed to fit all our needs with comfortable pews, big gyms, space for youth, Sunday School classrooms,  nice bathrooms and lots of space for coffee after worship. Churches build, renovate and adapt their spaces to meet our demands. Often a few volunteers toil away, year after year to keep buildings in good repair. I once heard a church member say, “Being at Church should feel like being in your living room”. But Buildings are not for serving our comfort. Buildings provide space for people to gather. Buildings allow communities to be together. Whether it is hard pews or folding chairs, whether it is a rented school gym or a re-purposed store front, buildings help us tell God’s story by giving us a place to tell it. The Church is the people, not the building. Imagine if we put the same effort into caring for each other as we do for our buildings.
  4. The Staff isn’t for you. Churches spend most of their budgets on staff, and so we often have high expectations. We want staff to be always available, ready to drop anything and be at the church to attend to the needs of members, renters, or visitors. Staff are expected to always be courteous and kind, yet they get a lot complaining and criticism. But church staff are not the hired help for churches. The staff’s job is to support the congregation as they live out God’s mission. Staff does the in-between jobs that allow people to serve Jesus. Church staff remind us that God’s work is done with our hands and feet, and that God’s work never ends.
  5. Communication isn’t for you. Churches are expected to make us aware of everything that is going on. We all want to be in the know, and we want to be kept informed. We expect Church communication to be working well – all the time. Whenever we feel out of the loop, we complain about ‘communication problems’. But church communication isn’t for keeping us in the gossip chain. Most churches these days inundate people with communication: Inserts in bulletins, announcements before and after worship, newsletters, poster boards, emails, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and more. Communication is a two-way street, there needs to be senders and receivers. Churches communicate to let their members and their communities know what God is doing in their little piece of the Kingdom. Churches communicate so that God’s mission can be lived out by members between Sundays.
  6. Visitors aren’t for you. We all want our pews full and offering plates overflowing. We want visitors to come and give money, become new members, serve on committees, and volunteer at the soup kitchen once in a while. And still, visitors are glared at for sitting our pew. Visitors are whispered about, yet not greeted when they come to worship. But visitors aren’t for making us feel better or doing our work. Visitor’s are people. People who have come to us seeking a community. People who are seeking God. Visitors are people who give us the opportunity to tell about the ways that God is working in our lives. Visitors are people with whom we can begin relationships with and people that we can invite into our lives.
  7. The Pastor isn’t for you. This one is a little personal. As a pastor I am expected to keep track of hundreds of families. I am supposed to know who is in the hospital, who is sick, who is shut-in at home without being told (because God is supposed to tell me directly). I am supposed to be on call 24/7, 365 days a year. I am supposed to be at every meeting and every church event. I am supposed to remember birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. I am supposed to celebrate every baptism and wedding, and grieve every funeral. I am supposed to have a great sermon every Sunday. I am supposed to attract the youth and get all the inactive members back. But Pastors are not for being Christians on behalf of the congregation. Pastors proclaim the good news and give out the means of grace in the sacraments. Pastors equip people for their ministry. Pastors help people to hear God’s call in their lives. Pastors help congregations live out God’s mission in the world. Pastors do what is good for the congregation, not what makes people happy.

Sometimes we forget why we are ‘The Church’ in the first place. Sometimes we treat the church like all the other things we consume daily in our lives, and so we try to shape and form the church in our own image. We want a church that meets our preferences, like personalized settings on our computer.

Yet, despite all that – despite us – God is still using The Church for God’s purposes. God is still doing God’s work in world, with or without us. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that. Sometimes we just need to hear again:

Church isn’t for you.

You are for the Church.

So what do you think? Is Church really not for you? Are there other ways in which the ‘Church isn’t for you’? Share in the comments, or share on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Want more lists of churchy things?

12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

10 More Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

10 More Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

12If you haven’t read the first post, 12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better, read it here.

So when my wife, Courtenay, and I came up with the first 12 reasons “why being a male pastor is better”, I did not expect my little blog to get shared so widely. Many readers submitted even more reasons in the comments. Some are funny, others are heartbreaking, others will make you shake your head, still others are infuriating. Naming them all is important, otherwise they will continue to be the way of silent privilege for men in the church. You can find all submissions for the list in the comments section of the first post, “12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better”.

Courtenay and I have come up with 10 more. The first 4 are ours. The 5 after that are our favourites compiled from the comments. Number 10 is the biggest reason of all.

1. People will never tell me “how professional” I look in a collar. In public, people are only weirded out because a pastor/priest is near by, not because my gender “doesn’t match” who traditionally wears my uniform.

2. I am never asked to be on larger church committees so that there can be a “representative man”. My role on larger church committees is never to constantly remind the group “him, he, his” are pronouns that apply to pastors too.

3, I get invited to the men’s breakfast AND the ladies’ bible study. No one thinks it is weird for me to show up at the men’s breakfast because of my gender, and it is also not weird that I lead the ladies’ bible study. Weird.

4. I can write blog posts on ‘women in ministry’ and even the nay-sayers are fairly respectful in the comments. The best part is that my thoughts about a gender, which I have no experience being and struggle to understand most days, is considered more authoritative.

From the comments on the first post. (some of have been edited or re-written to fit the style of the list)

5. My style, wardrobe or clothing are not up for public judgement. My clergy shirts by default, do not look like a woman’s blouse that I am trying to hide my maleness under. I will never get more comments about my shoes, my hair, my nails, or my makeup than comments on my sermon on any given Sunday. How I dress has never been an item for discussion by a church committee. In fact, my physical body is not the first thing used to describe me when my parishioners talk about who I am with their friends. No one tells me I have ‘nice legs’.   – Nadia Bolz Weber, Amanda Zentz-Alo, Wendy

6. No one expects me to cook or bake. I am not expected to provide cakes or cookies for the bake sale, or salad for a funeral dinner or potluck. If I do supply a dish for a church event, it is OK for me to pick up something at the store instead of making it myself. Most people don’t expect me to be a good cook just because of my gender.  – Dixie Anders, Rev Lisa Jo, Sandy

7. No one treats me like I am not well read, less intelligent or not as professional simply because of my gender. No one questions my scholarship or intellect – “Does the Bible really say that?” “Where did you read that?” – because a man would not know these things as well as other genders might. –  David Corliss

8. It is tolerated, even thought acceptable, for me to show anger. I am not prevented from being direct and passionate in the pulpit because it is unlike my gender. I can disagree with people or call out bad behaviour without being dismissed as divisive or emotional. – David Corliss

9. Most people won’t judge me publicly about my family life. My parenting skills and work/home-life balance is not publicly questioned simply because my gender is supposed to raise children. Yet, when I show openness to children, I am praised for being nurturing, not simply expected to be. I am not expected to be the Martha Stewart of the parsonage because that should come naturally to me. – Kathleen Lambert

And finally, the biggest reason why being a male pastor is better:

10. No one will ever tell me that, because of my gender, God will not call me into ordained/pastoral ministry. I am not excluded from any role in the church, simply because a biological coin toss gave me certain plumbing. I will never be told that my gender is the cause of all sin and therefore I can’t even teach the other. My gender doesn’t relegate me to “silence” in church or “submission” in the home. I will never be told that the Bible “clearly” explains (when it doesn’t) that I can’t be a pastor simply because it “says so”.

This, of course, is the ultimate in male privilege in the church. And this last one is the most aggravating for me. For liberal and progressive Christians, this is one of the ‘big elephants’ in the church. Except that, I see myself as liberal, progressive AND orthodox AND apostolic AND in keeping with the tradition of the church. Because radical equality is the theology of Jesus and Paul. Patriarchy is 1st century cultural baggage…  baggage that men still force women to carry 20 centuries later. For church leaders who claim that the bible prevents women from being pastors – it is a convenient way to exercise control and conserve power.

But institutionalized patriarchy is not faithful to the over-arching theology of the New Testament. It is not faithful to the way Christians have understood how we interpret scripture as a community and with our greatest theologians including Thecla, St. Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, and now Pope Francis. It is not faithful to the witness of Sarah, Miriam, Esther, Ruth, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Junia, Phoebe and all the others who preached the good news.

For those who want to keep women out of the pulpit, it isn’t about being faithful – it is about the fact that being a male pastor is “better”.

For more on women in ministry check out – 12 Years a Slave – Why Women should be Equal in the Church

So what do you think? What points still could be added to the list? Share in the comments!

12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

priestA few days ago I wrote about the issue of women in ministry. While I don’t think I have ever hidden my views on the topic (I married a female colleague, after all), I also have never written about it on the various blogs I have maintained over the last few years. And maybe recently, I didn’t see it as my place to comment on women in ministry. I am still not sure… I don’t see it as my place to comment on anyone’s “right” or “place” to be a pastor. If anything, I think it is my place to talk about my experience of being a Lutheran pastor or a millennial pastor or a Canadian pastor. It is also to my place to talk about being a male pastor.

So let’s talk about that.

Being a male pastor is kind of like Louis C.K.’s description of “Being White”. (Warning: The video contains offensive language).

Like Louis C.K. says, male pastors aren’t better. But being a male pastor is clearly better.

Like all the advantages of being white and male in North America, there are advantages when it comes to being an ordained pastor. Here are some of the obvious ones:

  1. No one ever defines my ministry by my gender. No one says, “wow a male pastor or a man in ministry, good for you.” I always get to be just a pastor. I don’t have to constantly live with a qualifier in front of “pastor”, and I am not forced to bear someone’s inappropriate shock that I am my gender and I am a pastor.
  2. People expect me to be direct and tell them what I think. They want me to lead them somewhere. I am rarely challenged or expected to defend or make a case for my ideas. I don’t have to apologize for having strong opinions or constantly defend my ideas.
  3. People think twice about fighting with me. I always have a leg up in conflict, bullies find it harder to push my buttons because I have fewer to push. I am never automatically second class because of my gender, so conflict is on equal terms or tipped in my favour. I don’t have to suffer being called “boy” or “son” as way of dismissing my point of view, and I am not accused of being divisive if I disagree with something or anything.
  4. People are used to pastors of my gender. There are no congregations that are unsure of male candidates for ministry, no parishioners who think it is alright to say something like, “I will never be buried by a man.” I don’t have to endure questions about whether I will take paternity leave, or what will happen when I have kids.
  5. People almost never assume that I have a particular gift for ministry before they know me. They don’t automatically think that my gender is suited to particular areas of ministry like preaching or administration. No one assumes that I am not good at pastoral care or being nurturing. People don’t say that I have the gift of speaking with a voice that men can relate to.
  6. I don’t have to worry about my safety. I don’t think twice about being alone in the church or if I am safe on my own. If a man asks to meet with me one on one, I don’t have to question my physical safety or his motives. Men don’t try to share the peace with me by hugging me (or grabbing my ass).
  7. No one assumes that I am the church secretary or the pastor’s spouse. I am never told, “You don’t look like a pastor or you are took young to be a pastor” even thought I am built like a football player and at times have had long hair and a beard like a hell’s angel. And I have a tattoo. And I am 30 (two decades younger than the average age of pastors in our denomination).
  8. Churches are built for men. Pulpits, altars, pastor chairs, vestments are all designed my size and body type in mind. I don’t look ridiculous because the standard garb of my profession is made for my gender, and I don’t look like a cross dresser in a clergy shirt.
  9. All the pronouns are for my gender. God is a he. Jesus is a he. Pastors are almost always referred to as he or him or his. I don’t have to correct people because they never use the wrong pronoun to refer to me.
  10. Being male is the norm in the church. I didn’t have to take classes in seminary about men’s issues, there is no post-modern male theology, male pastors where never brought in to speak about being male pastors as if it was special or odd or a novelty.
  11. I could join the Old Boys Club if I wanted to. Leadership in the church is still overwhelmingly male, and there are no glass ceilings for male pastors in the church. No one pretends it is, “all in good fun” to make sexist jokes about my gender, and none of my colleagues treats me like I am second class because of my gender.
  12. I don’t have to walk on egg shells in ecumenical situations. I don’t have to justify my position and call to my conservative colleagues, because they all have male pastors in their denominations. I am not an oddity or the token male at ministerial events.

All the advantages of being a male pastor are only advantages because women suffer the opposite. So many of my colleagues have to contend with these annoyances, insults, and frustrations each day because they are the reality of life in the church. This fact makes me very angry. I pray for the day when these will not be male-pastor advantages, but the reality for all pastors, regardless of gender.

*** Special thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for helping me write this post, since she knows much more about the struggles women in ministry face than I do. You can follow her on twitter @ReedmanParker ***

Read a Christmas Post here:

I am at War with Christmas

See some more posts:

Putting My Jesus Feminism to the Test

10 More Reasons Why Male Pastors are Better,

So what do you think? Are these true? Are there more advantages to being a male pastor? Share in the comments.

Follow me on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Want to kill your church? Start a program!

fail-poster-i6ru6okjjf-SUNDAY-SCHOOL

What do programs do anyways?

Every Church I know wants to teach faith to their members, and often struggle to figure out what that looks like. But I am sure that most of us would agree that these things probably don’t work:

  • preventing people from attending worship
  • dumbing down faith into perverse moralisms
  • having ill-equipped leaders lead
  • providing an experience that doesn’t reflect the vast majority of life in the community of the church
  • segregating  members until they are deemed worthy of being a part of the rest of the community

But this is exactly how the most widespread program in churches operates – Sunday School. We just don’t think about what Sunday School is actually doing, and how it is often doing the exact opposite of what we think it is doing. Sunday School is just one of many dreaded “programs” that we use as churches and it is killing us.

Church as Corporation

Churches and Church institutions have been adopting the structures and behaviours of secular organizations for a long time… maybe since the 4th century when Constantine put Christianity in charge of his empire.

In the 20th century and into the 21st century, churches are looking more and more like corporations than ever. Pastors and Bishops are being treated like CEOs. CEOs of companies that don’t pay well and expect a lot. Council meetings are more and more business oriented than community and vision oriented. And it is not surprising. Our North American world is becoming more “corporatized” everywhere we turn.

Besides constitutions, bylaws, policies, budgets, goal-achievment-strategies… the “program” is probably the most pervasive corporate strategy to infect churches. Programs have become the most important thing that many churches think they are doing. We have programs for everything: Sunday School programs, youth programs, young adult programs, young families programs, women’s programs, men’s programs, seniors programs, worship programs, bible study programs, soup kitchen programs, confirmation programs, evangelism programs, volunteer programs, stewardship programs, maintenance programs, VBS programs, music programs, singles, programs, couples programs, AA/NA programs, seeker/new christian programs, and so on…

So here is the thing about programs. They don’t work.

Programs Don’t Work – Communities Do

Programs are for communities that have forgotten how to be communities. Programs satisfy our deep fears about being sufficient on our own to “attract” people to church. I have heard the question so often, “What can we do to (fill in the blank, get the youth back, have a worship band, build a Sunday School, reach out to young families, work with seniors, serve the homeless etc…)?” And the real question being asked is, “What can do we do to avoid the real issue of why we have forgotten how to be a diverse community of real relationships?

Programs seem like silver bullets or magic wands that will solve our problems. But really programs are the best at helping us to avoid being a real community. Programs, literally, give us words to say instead of our own. The map out our activity, our time, or goals and objectives. Only communities that have forgotten how to be real communities need that kind of help.

Programs need to be viewed as what they really are. Crutches for community. Communities that can’t walk on their own use crutches… but only until they are walking again. If we keep using the crutches, we will never walk.

Churches and church leaders should be deciding on their own what the vision, value and goals for community are. We should map out our own activities, time and objectives. We should speak our own words, the words passed on in faith through scripture and the timeless Body of Christ to each other. We need to speak with words specific to our context, our time and place. Programs are killing our community much more often than they are helping us to be a community. So let’s give them up.

Do I mean that churches need to stop doing all those things I listed above? No. But programs don’t teach our faith or serve the poor or “attract” youth to church or help different generations integrate or deepen our relationship with God and others.

Let’s Be a Community

Instead, let’s be churches or communities that teach each other faith and learn together. Let’s serve our neighbour together. Let’s help our young find their place among us together. Let’s grow in faith as we worship and share in fellowship together. Oddly enough doing these things as community might look a lot like a program. And if we do these things well as a community together, other communities might look at us and say, “hey, you guys are doing that well, tell us how” and that is how programs are often started.

Yet, doing these things together as a community means that we are figuring out how it will work – and work here. It means thinking about our people, not any people. It means planning what things will look like here. And we will start looking more and more like a real community that doesn’t need crutches. Because here is the thing about crutches… Jesus didn’t like them. Jesus just created a community that did stuff together… no program required.

One last thing.

Why programs need to die

A word about programs and generations, this blog is called “The Millennial Pastor”, after all.

Programs are a very post-WWII phenomenon. The G.I. generation started all kinds of programs for their kids. Sunday Schools, youth groups, choirs, service clubs, couples groups, singles groups, mom groups, ladies’ groups, etc… And many congregations have a hard time giving up these programs. Soup kitchens, women’s groups, Sunday Schools often have elderly people driving them and doing the work. As often as I am asked the question, “How do we get the young people back?” it is followed by, “They need to come and do their part around here”. Churches and long time members expect their kids and grandkids to come and carry on with the church. Not just carry-on in faith, or gathering for worship, but carry-on the Sunday School, the ladies’ group, the property care, the volunteer programs, the choirs (and their music), the committees and the the financial burden.

But the G.I.’s and the Boomers forget that they had the privilege of founding churches, starting programs from the ground and enshrining their passions in the bylaws of the congregation. These pet projects might have to die for the church to survive. Disbanding Sunday School isn’t a failure, it the realization that something needs to die for something new to start to grow.

So want to kill your church? Start a program or, even better, keep with the ones that aren’t working. Want to see new life in unexpected places? Start killing programs.

What do you think? Are programs bad for churches? Or do we need them? Share in the comments. 

So… what really does make for good worship? It is not what you think.

allsaintsorthodoxchurch3Christian worship can be a vague and nebulous experience. Worship planners and leaders undertake the Herculean task of facilitating worship that works for people who need concrete experience to be engaged, people who need mystery to feel connected, people who need emotion to feel included, people who need things to make sense and words to be carefully chosen to participate.

Worship wars over style, content, music, leadership erupt all over the place. If you spend any amount of time close to the worship planning systems of a congregation, you will know that it is one of the most volatile, sensitive, political, emotional parts of being a church. Everyone has a opinion and preference when it comes to worship. Christians fight over music, style, liturgy, non-liturgy, sacraments, preaching, musicians, leadership, prayers, planning or anything else imaginable when it comes to worship.

And in my experience most people making their way to church on Sunday mornings, and especially those involved in planning and leading, miss the point of what makes good worship. We get so taken up by personal preference and opinion that we forget why we are worshipping in the first place.

And if anyone says, “Worship is to glorify God” that is code language for “My preferences and opinions are next to divine”. God is not so narcissistic that our worship needs to be constant praise and adoration of the divine. Worship is so much deeper than that. Worship is a much more tangled mess of interaction between human beings and God. 

So what makes for good worship?

Indulge me for a moment:

Imagine yourself caught up in a big crowd, jostling, movie along, being pulled to an unknown and unseen destitution. It is a hot summer day, yet people are relaxed and easy going. Simmering underneath is a sense of excitement among this big, big crowd. Finally, you stop moving and there are people as far as you can see in all directions.

The event you have been waiting for all afternoon finally begins. And you hear a voice projected over loud-speakers across the wide-open outdoor space. And unexpectedly the voice is not really that exciting to listen to “I am happy to join with you today…”. The voice continues, but all you can feel is the glare of the sun, bodies breathing, sweating, moving, twitching, coughing all around you. It is hot and bright and uncomfortable. You are not engaged with what you have come to be engaged with.

And then you hear this, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia…” and suddenly you no longer standing in the hot, sweaty crowd a the Lincoln Memorial, but you are on the red hills of Georgia. And then you are in the sweltering humid heat of Mississippi. And then you are in Alabama, surrounded by little children, of all skin tones and races, playing together.

Most people don’t know this, but the first 3 and half pages of the I have a Dream speech were… well… not as memorable as the last 2 pages. It wasn’t until Martin Luther King Jr. left his script and preached a sermon he knew well that the crowd actually was taken up by his words.

The speech was a defining moment for the civil rights movement. But the transition in the speech from delivering an address to preaching a sermon is an example of two aspects of Christian worship.

Two sides of the same coin that pastors, worship planners and leaders struggle to achieve, and find hard to grasp. The first part of the speech shows worship just “not really working” and the second part is worship at its best.

Think back to my description of the ‘I have a dream’ speech. Or imagine reading your favourite book, or seeing a great movie, or going for a great run/walk, or listening to fantastic music. All of these things make you forget you are doing them, while are you doing them. You get lost in the content, lost in the world that they create. You forget you are watching actors on a screen, forget you are reading an author’s words on a page, forget you are out putting one foot in front of the other for exercise, forget that musicians are making sounds with instruments. You start watching stories and characters and worlds come to life, sound and movement transport you to a place different than the one you are in.

Worship at its best makes us forget we are watching a pastor leading liturgy, or hearing an organist hits keys on an organ, or hear a member read words from a book. We are transported into the ever flowing worship of the saints. We are taken into the story of God’s people and we become characters who have a role, not audiences watching actors.

And how do you know you are there? Only when you are rudely jolted back to reality. It is that loud cougher that reminds you that you are in the theatre. It is eye strain that reminds you that you are reading a book. It is fatigue that reminds you that you are out for exercise. It is a wrong note or cramped leg that reminds you that you are watching an orchestra in a concert hall.

It is so hard to know what about worship will pull us out of our grounded self awareness and into that new world. But it is easy to identify the things that pull us back to reality. The running commentary by the pastor between prayers and hymns. Interrupted flow by the worship leader getting lost. The organist missing a cue or starting some liturgical music part way through a prayer. The band leader deciding to give a short mini-sermon after the sermon to fix what the pastor said. A children’s message gone horribly wrong. A reader who misreads ‘sexual immorality’ for ‘sexual immortality’.

Now this is the part where I tell you that I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how to plan or lead worship that will feel like we are all watching our favourite movie for the first time, or like we are getting lost in a great book, or like we are going for that run where our body just moves effortlessly.

I have some suspicions of how to get there. It means getting out of the way as planners and leaders. It means dropping the commentary about worship while you are in worship. It means being deeply concerned with and aware of movement and flow, and knowing that worship is not a to do list, but a story that has a beginning, middle, climax and end. It is knowing that ‘Worship is to glorify God’ in the sense that when the Body of Christ gathers, we are taken into the story of God and God’s people, and the biblical narrative shapes us and becomes our story. It means being relaxed about the music styles that we use, being okay with many people participating even if they aren’t perfect, being joyful that the Body of Christ has another chance to gather this week and getting it right means simply being together.

All I can say is, enjoy the moments when you are lost in the worship of the saints, and pay attention to what jolts you away and snaps you back to that almost crushing awareness of yourself and the world immediately around you. And remember the best movies, best books, best music, best art are the best not because they are a certain style or only 60 minutes long. Nor the best because of who created it or because of the instruments that were used. They are the best because they draw us into their new worlds, even if for a moment. Just as God draws us into God’s world each week when we gather for worship.

So… what really does make for good worship? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Christian Self-Sacrifice: Your Pastor is doing it wrong.

washing_feet_01Christians are called to self sacrifice and to give of themselves, their time, talents, energy, finances, commitment and heart to churches and other ministries.

As Pastors, we are called upon to be the ones who lead the way, who exhort our people to give and to model a self-giving, self-sacrificing lifestyle. What this ends up looking is like is pastors working 60-70 hours a week, trying to get to every meeting, trying to make every visit, preach the perfect sermon, lead the best bible studies and have office hours for drop in visits… not to mention counselling appointments, sweeping up the kitchen after youth and taking that extra half hour to deal with parking lot concern in the “meeting after the meeting”.

And I regularly hear the statement, “How can I ask my people to give if I am not leading the way”.

This style of ministry is very well intentioned. But it is utterly wrong headed and counter productive. Yes… I know that my colleagues and friends might disagree.

So let me start by making a confession:

I can count on one hand the number of weeks I have worked more than 40 hours in nearly 5 years in the parish.

I have lost count of the number of 35 hour weeks I have worked in the same period.

And guess what, not a single parishioner has ever asked about my hours. In fact most assume I am very busy (which I never say that I am), and most are very surprised when I can make time for them.

A part of this is that I am a fast writer. I can write sermons, reports, newsletter articles, blog posts in just a few minutes or short hours. I also very rarely have writers block. Now I know this might give me a good 5-15 hour a week head start on many of my colleagues. But now that I am done humble bragging, I think there is a much more important issue in regards to those other 20 hours that so many pastors are working over 40. And that issue is feelings.

Yup, feelings.

As pastors we encourage our members to give of themselves for many reasons. Because the hungry need to be fed, committees need members, Sunday school students need teachers, choirs need singers, sick and lonely people need visits, buildings need maintenance, etc…

But we also know that giving of ourselves is a very important part of our relationship with God and with our community. It feels good. And not in the self satisfying way, but in the soul- transforming-I-genuinely-know-the-other-and-God kind of way. So we encourage our people to give of themselves because we know that self-sacrifice is part of that soul changing work. 0511-1009-1319-0462_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Stressed_Out_Guy_with_the_Word_Overload_clipart_image

And because we know this as pastors, we often get ourselves into way too much of it and suddenly we are working 70 hours a week in a not so soul transforming way. I think there a few reasons for this:

  1. Pastors have hard time defining what our work is.
  2. It is an easy way to feel good when you are constantly on the front line of ministry.
  3. It feels really good to feel needed, and it is an easy way to be appreciated when we are praised for our busy-ness.
  4. Being busy is measure of value, specifically justification for our salaries.
  5. Many pastors lack the confidence to believe that our training gives us skills and knowledge that our people need. It just isn’t as evident to us as it is to doctors or lawyers or teachers who know very well that the people they work with need their expertise.

So here is the thing. We know that self-sacrifice and giving of ourselves feels good, and it is an easy way to justify our jobs.

But that stuff is in fact what we have been called out of and set apart from as those who fill the “office” of ministry in our congregations.

I went to a retirement party for a much beloved pastor. There were hundreds of people there, people from across the country. There were skits, songs, speeches, videos and many, many tears. And all night long there was this awkwardness because it was clear this pastor had sacrificed his family life… even brought home work for his family to do… The pastor’s family even gave speeches themselves saying their husband and father was never home and always working… but it was for Jesus.

I have heard colleagues tell me that their spouses won’t commit them to anything, or even tell them about kid’s concerts, sporting events or family functions because they know their pastor spouse will be absent.

This is more the sad norm than the exception.

Being a pastor changes the way we get to do that soul-changing work. We are set-apart from the normal stuff that everyone else gets to do and it is really hard, especially when you consider that most pastors were sent to seminary because they love and were good at that the stuff we call and exhort our parishioners to do. It is hard because the self-giving stuff that we encourage our people to do is above and beyond the 40+ hours they spend at their work, and we should be there too. It is hard because it is a powerful example to be leading the way in self-giving and sacrifice.

However, it always ends up messy. It is so easy for congregations to begin expecting 70 hour weeks, rather than seeing that those 30 hours as “extra”. Thom Rainer conducted an experiment to see what his council of deacons (or church council) expected him to be doing and how many hours a week he should spend doing it. The result, a 114 hour work week. And this was what the informed leadership expected of the pastor.

What begins as well intentioned modelling of self-sacrifice, morphs into congregations paying the pastor (and staff) to do most of the ministry of the laity or congregation. And a lot of my colleagues express this frustration, but don’t know any other way of doing things.

The answer is simple. The execution is hard. Stop giving 30+ hours of extra, dare I even say, “lay ministry” to your church.

This is extra hard for most pastors because leading the way in giving time and energy to the church is where that calling to ministry first grew.

This is what I know: My most important jobs are first and foremost Preaching the gospel and Presiding at worship. Doing those things with integrity takes 40% to 50% of my time. The rest is devoted to teaching, visiting the sick and dying, preparing people for baptism, marriage and funerals for another 20% to 30% and the last 20-30% is devoted to visioning, planing, getting everyone on the same page of mission and purpose.

What does that last piece look like? It is helping people to understand that the highest value and goal of being a church is to be a good worshipping community. A community that loves, respects and cares for each other, and a community that gathers and is formed first and foremost in worship.   When a congregation’s purpose is to be a good community formed in worship, the responsibility of the leaders becomes to name the destination and point the way. And it stops being getting all the jobs done… which is the goal of a church that is paying it’s pastor for 70 hours a week of ministry.