Thursday, July 20, 2017

Vintage CC: Tips on Church Visioning from "Weird Al" Yankovic

I wrote this post back in July 2014, and was inspired enough by one of "Weird Al" Yankovic's latest offerings to explore its implications for the church. Apparently this one struck enough of a nerve to make its way to the Christian Century blog, which was nice to see as well. The overall point of this post was to highlight one of the many ways we can be our own worst enemies in terms of trying to make difference the world, and I think it still holds up pretty well.

Everyone has music that helps mark their childhood. The artists that one hears during those formative years tend to stick with us, evoking memories when the oldies are played and, while not always the case, we may be likely to follow a few of these throughout their careers, no matter what sorts of turns their musical styles take.

Sometime in elementary school, I first heard "Weird Al" Yankovic's classic song "Eat It," a parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." A few years later, a friend lent me his copy of the album Even Worse, and I laughed so hard at some songs that I cried. That was all it took to make me a fan for life.

A few weeks ago, "Weird Al" released his latest album, Mandatory Fun. As I've mentioned, I've worried with recent albums that I wouldn't be as familiar with the songs he parodies, as I tend not to listen to mainstream radio nearly as much as I used to. Fortunately, this hasn't often been the case, and the songs he's chosen to skewer on Mandatory Fun are popular enough that even I who have been wandering off the musical beaten path for years was able to join in on the fun.

As he has done several times, "Weird Al" chose an older song to parody this time around, that being Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Carry On," refashioning it as "Mission Statement."  The concept of this song is pretty simple: string together a bunch of the most common buzzwords and phrases used in the world of business, including "efficiently," "synergy," "trajectory," "philosophy," "maximize," and countless others. Here, take a listen:

The song, much like most companies' actual mission statements, sounds impressive until you realize it doesn't really say anything. It's just a bunch of jargon that may in some real way describe a business' plan or purpose, but isn't really all that connected to what individuals and teams are doing.

So, then, why would a business have a mission statement? Why would they bother to craft one, let alone hang it on posters and send it out on memos? There are any number of answers to that. For one, it makes people feel better about trying to name and communicate a group's purpose, whether anyone other than the task force that wrote it cares or not. For another, it's busywork; something that somebody can do and maybe feel productive. Or not. For still another, those who work on mission statements may earnestly be trying to describe what they see their company doing, or wish they would do. Getting individual employees to buy in to the particular descriptor is another task altogether.

Which brings me to the church. For at least as long as I've been in ministry--and, I sense, much longer than that--church consultants have advocated for the borrowing of concepts from the world of business, including the construction of a mission statement. Entire denominations do it, as do many local congregations. Look on most church websites, letterhead, bulletins, and wherever else, and many have adopted this practice in one form or another. And because we're the church, we have our own set of buzzwords and jargon that may appear: "community," "hospitality," "reach," "serve," "discipleship," and on the list goes.

(And maybe it'll mention Jesus. Or not.)

The last church I served had such a mission statement, which was fairly long. But here's the thing: when I would ask people what it said, nobody could tell me. It was printed on the bulletin cover every week, full of lots of great concepts and churchy words, but nobody paid it any attention. We even underwent a process to revise it to a single sentence and shared the new statement with the congregation in multiple ways. Honestly, this happened near the tail end of my time there, so I can't say for sure whether the new one is being used.

Where I am now, we have a lengthy mission statement that predates my pastorate by over a decade. It's even displayed on a lovely hand-carved wooden plaque. Do we use it? Does anyone pay it any mind? Not that I'm aware of. But it looks and sounds nice.

Churches should have a sense of direction and purpose, that I certainly wouldn't argue against. Unfortunately, too many churches' purposes in practice seem to be, simply, "Survive." This manifests in endless preoccupation over the scarcity--real or perceived--of money and members; the congregation turns inward to protect itself, negating the chance of ever improving upon the situation it worries about.

Does a church need a mission statement in order to change this sort of culture? In some contexts, perhaps. If presented right so as to effect buy-in from the congregation and subsequently hold itself accountable, this might be the right path for some. More often, however, a mission statement ends up being busywork that helps us feel like we're doing and saying something, with little follow-up after its creation other than having something new to put at the top of the newsletter.

What I have found to be more effective is cultural change from within via pockets of committed people doing something that they're passionate about. Do you have a handful of folks itching to go help with a Habitat for Humanity build? How could their participation help fuel a greater commitment to service around the church? Do you have some people wondering about the changing neighborhood and how to engage those moving in? What would their getting together for regular conversation about that produce? Is there a group that can see some of the deficiencies in technology and potential for greater engagement in those trends for the church? How could they be empowered for that work, and how might it catch on over time?

Church visioning begins with people, not buzzwords. Church culture changes via people who want to do something new getting others caught up in the excitement and possibility, not a statement about what you want to do.

In fact, coming up with a catchy, sound, astute statement loaded with pretty, purposeful-sounding words might be distracting. Crafting a mission statement provides the illusion of doing something without actually doing much at all.

What could we be doing instead?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Living Water

They started their reflection with a story about trout-fishing.

I was sitting in a small hotel conference room with around 40 fellow young clergy. The planners of this activity had set aside this time during the UCC's General Synod to invite this group to a time of worship and renewal before the bigger event really started. It featured a renewal of baptism with drops of water flung onto our heads from tree branches; an encouragement to remember who and Whose we are.

But not before we heard about trout fishing.

Rev. Emily C. Heath was our reflector for the afternoon. They shared an experience of visiting a bait shop to hear about the best places to find fish, during which they heard about living water vs. dead water. As it turns out, there are certain spots in rivers that are considered dead: nothing is moving, and there is no chance to find fish in those places. Contrast this with living water, where there is movement and thus there is life.

If you are in dead water, you won't find much that will sustain or invigorate you. But in living water, vitality and refreshment abounds.

I'd spent the week prior to this moment on the beach. This place in Florida is one of my terrains of the heart, to which I return either physically or through memory to be rejuvenated. I and my family spent this time in the living waters of the ocean, with their waves breaking on the sand; the sounds of their crashing a gentle echo in my ears.

We saw fishing boats all week. This water had plenty of life to share.

And it shared it with me. I stood on the shore, the sand collecting around my ankles while my children kicked and splashed and jumped. I watched the waters move and flow in, out, and across. I'd come to stand here after six months without a true break, at times wondering where certain parts of my life are headed, trying to keep other things afloat related to my sense of call and my own spirit.

I was tired. I'd been treading in dead water for a while. But even the thought that I'd soon be here kept me going.

My word for this week was "Kairos," which can mean "the right time," or "on God's time." This is to be contrasted with "Chronos," or chronological time where everything is scheduled, parsed out, urgent, and in its proper order. Chronos is our attempt to control time and, by extension, all that happens to us. Kairos is our giving ourselves to the moment and to allow things to unfold around and in us.

Whatever this living water had to give me this week, I would allow it to happen. Nothing pre-scheduled, save a day in the Harry Potter parks at Universal, and even that was largely unstructured. No planning what I would do upon returning home; no mental energy spent on issues I'd return to. Just God's time spent with these waves of replenishment.

So by the time I sat in that banquet room for worship, I'd already been immersed in living water. To have it framed that way only deepened my appreciation of the experience. It would continue as I walked along Baltimore's Inner Harbor and as I sweated out toxins searching for Edgar Allen Poe's grave. It continued as I refueled with drinking water and heard about the waters of God making all things glad per the designated theme of the conference.

As usual, I hadn't fully recognized my need for living water until I was standing in it, sprinkled by it, drenched in it, fulfilled by it. I finally found my way out of dead water into something new. And on God's time, I'll discover what that newness is.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: Contemporary Churches by Louis F. Kavar

Those of us who grew up in Christian churches, no matter what denomination, were taught to understand that the church should be the center of our lives and activities: the hub. As attractive as that understanding of the local church may be, there has always been a fundamental flaw in this model of the church. As Christians, it is the teachings of Jesus and the way of life he modeled for us that should be the center of our lives and not an institution. Churches are places where we gather, learn, share faith, and celebrate our way of life and beliefs. But the institution is not a substitute for the experience of leading a spiritual life which is primarily informed by the teachings of Jesus and the experience of God in our midst. - Louis Kavar, Contemporary Churches

I would say that almost from my very first weeks in full-time pastoral ministry, I recognized that the church has a problem. In those earliest days I couldn't articulate what the problem was, but I knew that there was something about the way the church operates, something about the way it approaches what it does, something about what it understands itself to be, that is causing it to be in trouble without realizing it.

Over time, I'd find authors, speakers, blogs, and books to help give name to the slow-boiling crisis in which the church finds itself, chief among them being that many mainline churches think they can still operate as if they are the best or only game in town, religious or otherwise. It wonders why the old tricks that worked back when it was the center of society aren't as effective any more, and many don't even realize that that shift from the center to the periphery has taken and is taking place. In many places, our organizational structure and self-understanding is draining us, and we need a fresh approach rooted in our original purpose.

In his slim volume Contemporary Churches: Spiritual Transformation of Congregations, Louis Kavar names some of these problems manifested in mainline churches. He is a United Church of Christ pastor, so his experience is rooted in that tradition but easily translatable to similar denominations.

Kavar begins in the introduction by naming a few of the problems such churches are facing, singling out readiness to welcome new people, organizational structure, leadership, and the changing role of the church in American culture. He offers a brief overview of each as a setup to what comes after, giving enough background without belaboring any one point. He does spend a little more time on the church's cultural status, which contributes to the others in various ways. He also fleshes out each in subsequent chapters, so the reader is never left with a shallow understanding of what he means.

Kavar's chief concern is cultivating a shift in a church's understanding of who and what it is. He spends quite a bit of time exploring how many churches operate and approach their sense of purpose as an institution that must be maintained (and sometimes protected) and whose main function is to be a hub of activities and socialization around which people orient all available resources and free time. Some churches can get away with this, but an increasing amount cannot. What, then, do churches become instead given this changing reality, and what will such becoming ask them to change about themselves?

The answer is not a uniform, one-size-fits-all solution, which immediately differentiates this book from many contemporaries. What Kavar does suggest, is that churches understand themselves to be spiritual places that help people live lives of discipleship every day rather than bureaucracies whose main goal is the business of self-preservation. What does this look like? It depends. Kavar gives a handful of examples including one that changed its governing board practices to include a spiritual director who sits in on meetings and offers commentary. Another example is of a newly-merged congregation that spent most of its resources in programs and activities outside the building in efforts to engage its surrounding community.

In the final chapter, Kavar offers some general principles for the spiritual transformation of congregations. The common feature of each is that a sense of spiritual purpose informs everything a church does, where worship and prayer is a central factor in even the administrative side of its life rather than a token piece at the beginning.

I found Kavar's book to be a refreshing look at the hows and whys of a church rediscovering its identity as a place of spiritual empowerment rather than self-sustenance. It offers fresh ways to look at congregational revitalization that avoids proposing a static program that will purportedly work anywhere, instead sharing some basic tenets of what the church can be in a spiritually hungry culture that wonders whether it can still trust local congregations to be faithful guides on the journey. Kavar shows that indeed we still can, if we remember who we really are.

(I was asked to review this book by the Speakeasy blogging book review network, but ended up having to purchase my own copy. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Pastoral Prayer for the Struggle to Change

based on Romans 7:15-25a

O God, we have so many good intentions. Every day we wake up and think this time it will be different. Today we won't gossip about our co-worker. Today we won't snap at the kids when we're annoyed. Today we won't eat the extra pastry. Today we won't overextend our energy. Today we'll start living better, acting better, turning the corner for our own sake and for the sake of those around us through being kinder, more compassionate, more welcoming, more aware of what we or others need. It's all just a matter of willpower, positive thinking, and inspirational phrases.

But then we're confronted by our first opportunity to do something different and we realize how hard changing our thoughts and actions really is. We want to refrain from bad habits and turn toward better ones, but the good we want to do is more elusive and the bad comes so easily. And so we slip back into what's comfortable, reasoning that we'll try again tomorrow.

The real issue is that we can't do this ourselves. We can't just psych ourselves up in the mirror while brushing our teeth and think it will be enough. We need your Spirit's presence. We need the help and accountability of those around us. We need the community of your church that walks with us, guiding and reminding and praying and on the same journey, stumbling toward greater faithfulness and love.

Divine Helper, we need you. We need others. Show us a way forward that isn't so lonely or dependent on our own abilities; one rooted in companionship and mutual encouragement. We want to move toward what is life-giving and away from what is destructive. By your grace, may real change begin. Amen.