Friday, April 29, 2016

Collaborative Ministry to Build the Connectional System

A few summers ago, my husband (also a UM elder) and I were asked to be the clergy on site for a week long summer retreat for high school aged youth. There were about 40 of them, and we were to lead worship and develop small group curriculum. It was something we really wanted to do, but with us both serving high maintenance churches, seemed an overwhelming task to prepare for. The camp director had selected the book In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars by Mark Batterson as the theme for the camp.

The book is based on 2nd Samuel 23: 20-21 in which Benaiah chases a lion into a pit on a snowy day and kills it. Yes, someone wrote an entire book on two verses. Impressive.  Each chapter ends with discussion points and questions, setting up easy small group planning. 

We broke the book down into four sections to correlate with the four Sundays we planned to preach the books in our churches and the four main worship services we would be doing at camp.  We tag-teamed the sermon writing (I did rough draft, he cleaned it up) and we split the small group development so the kids got a picture of our differing theologies and approaches to life.  

From this, we had a month long sermon series and special short-term Sunday school class for our churches and a week long retreat for the youth retreat, each modified for the audience. Our churches knew about the retreat and loved being the test audience. It turned out to be a great way for them to be more engaged with the sermon as they wanted to give us meaningful feedback on what touched them so we could potentially emphasize that with the youth. 

Not only does sharing the workload make it easier on all parties involved, but it can be very refreshing to work with others in our often isolating vocation. Got clergy/candidate friends in the same city? Pick a scripture (or theme) and do a round robin. Everyone write their sermon on their interpretation of the scripture and then rotate churches so you preach the same sermon three or four times and the congregations get to experience different preaching styles, theological interpretations, and liturgical styles. Consider a picnic at the end to get all the congregations together, or do joint mid-week classes so they can be together. 

Got clergy friends scattered around the nation? Pick a book of the Bible or book of non-fiction or sermon series and assign each person one sermon draft to write. Share them all, and let your congregation know who provided the basis for the sermon. If your technology allows, Skype the congregations together for a workshop to talk about how the regional cultural context impacts the theological experience of the book/series. 

The United Methodist Church often seems rooted in competition, not connection. We are judged by statistics and the almighty dollar and pitted against each other.  The Connection can be built in ways other than apportionments and monolithic organizations. Build it with relationships, and work smarter, not harder. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Benefits of Self Promotion for Candidates for Ordination


File under “Be Careful What You Wish For” 

Many years ago, I attended the Clergy Orders retreat hosted by the Rocky Mountain Conference and held at the SilverTree Hotel in Steamboat Springs, CO. Held in early fall, the resort was actually closed and opened just for the few hundred clergy who attended the retreat. 

At the time, I was a Commissioned candidate serving a small church with a homeless ministry. The hotel had very nice travel sized toiletries, but I knew most attending had their own products and the hotel would be discarding the travel products left behind in their rooms. I set up boxes for the attendees to donate the products from their room, with permission from the hotel manager, so we could pass them on to the homeless and in-need folks in our church program.

Those running the retreat allowed me to make an announcement about the donations in front of the entire group. Not only did it serve the purpose of soliciting donations, it allowed my Reading Team and the BOM to see me in action, hear about my ministry, and see my Connectional nature as I invited the clergy to bring a group to participate in our ministry and thanked by name the churches already participating. 

We filled boxes with the products, and the manager loved what we were doing. He took my contact info and anytime the hotel changed packaging or had other reason to dispose of products, he would send them to me. 

And then one day he called. It went something like this. 

Him: “I’ve got a large quantity of products for you.” 
Me: “Ok, send them over.” 
Him:  “You don’t understand. We have been bought by *national chain* and all our branded products have to go. It’s a truckload, about 6,000 pounds coming to you right from the warehouse. It’s worth $22,000” 
Me:  “Uhhhh….” (Head spinning)
Him: “Can I tell the driver to deliver it tomorrow?” 
Me:   “Uhhhh……yes……” (Freaking out)
Him: “Great, I’ll check in with you after it’s delivered.” 
Me: “Uhhh…..ok. Thanks.” (Shell shocked. What to do with it, but how can you turn down a donation like that?) 

Did I mention I was out of town? And the only space on the main level of the church was the sanctuary. And it seemed cruel to make people carry 6,000 pounds of things down steep, narrow stairs in a historic building, only to carry them back up to distribute them.

Called the building manager, John, who was always down for a little crazy and caused a little himself now and then. He agreed to gather some friends and help unload the truck into the sanctuary, lining the walls with the boxes.  I’ll have to keep looking for the photos, but here is one. 6,000 pounds of shampoo, conditioner, lotion and soap is a lot. Like a ton. Or three. Literally.  It lined both walls 6’ high and filled the back eight pews. 

I would hit retirement before our homeless program could use it all, so we had to get creative. I challenged every member (about 60 in worship) to find an organization that could use these products. As they found them, the member would then come before the congregation and tell about the organization, how much they needed, and if they needed the products bulk or packaged up. If they needed them bulk, we just loaded boxes into their car. If they needed them packaged, we set up assembly lines after church and put one of each product into a bag so the organization could hand out a ‘personal care kit’. 


100 personal care kits bagged for delivery

It took nearly a year to hand it all out, but it went to organizations transitioning families out of homelessness, homeless ministries, shelters, homes for the mentally ill, firefighters during summer wildfires, domestic violence shelters, mission teams from other churches took them to orphanages around the world, and over 25 other organizations. We as a congregation learned about mission projects going on all over metro Denver and we watched as the boxes slowly disappeared, knowing we were making an impact. And we shared it all with the hotel manager who made it happen. 

The moral of the story for ordination candidates: Seize opportunities to promote yourself. Your team and the BOM probably see a lot of candidates and you need to stand out and be identifiable.  With Annual Conference coming up, is there a way for you to lead a prayer during a worship service, talk about your ministry setting in a special lunch, or otherwise advocate for yourself? My team loved that I had the moxie to stand up in front of my colleagues, and at my subsequent meetings, they asked about it and I was able to share how that one moment ended up impacting thousands of people. 


You have to promote yourself, but that move of self interest may become something so much bigger than you ever imagined. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Suicide Next Door - Genesis 1:27

A journal note from November 15, 2011  (Genesis 1:27 or Lectionary Genesis 1:1-2:4)

A little after noon today, my facilities manager texted that the alley behind the church was cordoned off with crime scene tape and police were everywhere. I happened to be a few blocks away and rushed over. Being clergy comes with undeserved privileges that I take advantage of often, so I was immediately escorted to the detective on site.   

Last night a 29 year old woman committed suicide in an apartment building across the alley from my church. From the room in which she took her life, she could see the amazing hundred year old stained glass window on the side of our sanctuary.

My heart is broken that she probably did not know she could come to us. Had she known we would have loved and supported her in her darkest moments, would she have picked up the phone or knocked on our door? If she had knocked on the door, our facilities manager (who lives in the building) would have welcomed her in. He would have called me, I would have been there in minutes. We would have sat with her all night, taken her to the hospital, called her family or friends, called a therapist member of the church, or taken any other steps to help. We would have done anything to save her precious life. We would have journeyed with her long term as she recovered her sense of self and hope. But I know we are unique like that. No one thinks of churches a as 24-hour place of love anymore. And for good reason.  Few are.

My heart is broken at the loss of this young life. She was only a few years younger than I am. She, as are all people, was blessedly and sacredly made and deserved to be loved and appreciated for the unique person she was. I wish we knew her.

My heart is broken in a way that will not heal. Each wound like this reminds me of the failings of the church. Every church, mine included. The wound reminds me that we need to work endlessly to build relationships in our neighborhoods; to ensure that every person knows they can come to us in a time of need and be loved. Not judged, not diagnosed, not criticized, not converted or preached to. Just loved.

Let the legacy of this woman be that we were made all the more aware of the needs of those around us, and more ready to ask for help when we need it and offer help to those in need. I pray that her soul is finally at peace, and for her family and friends find comfort in their grief.  I gave my business cards to the detective, asking him to pass them along to the family or neighbors should they need support, and will visit the building in the days to come to offer my support, belated as it may be. It feels insignificant. I will carry this moment forever, remembering a life lost unnecessarily, and always wondering how I could have reached out more to provide a safe space for her.


Curing Congregational Learned Helplessness

Story told with permission. As always.

Are you in a church that seems to believe it is helpless, unable to contribute to God’s transformational work in the world, or even put on a potluck supper? Perhaps your congregation is suffering from Learned Helplessness. It’s hard work, but you can cure them of this ailment if you understand what it is and what you can do about it. 

From Wikipedia: 

….The organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. …… The US sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer. 

Generally speaking, learned helplessness occurs when a person or group comes to feel that they cannot achieve a goal or complete a task. I use the term loosely, so please don’t see this as my attempt to cross into psychology. It is simply a good term to use to describe what occurs when a congregation is taught that they are incapable. 

By ‘taught’, I do not mean intentionally instructed, but it is usually a more subliminal message that comes from an over-functioning pastor or small group of leaders. When the pastor over-functions, the congregation come to feel that they are ill-equipped to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, so they give up. When the leadership over-functions, the remainder of the congregation feels ill-equipped to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, so they give up. Eventually these leaders burn out or the pastor moves on, and the congregation is left to its helpless self. 

A client came to me despondent. He had been full of energy and ideas, but his new congregation would just sit and stare at him like he had three heads. Their first response to any idea, even a rather simple congregational event, was self-doubt and excuses. If one person would get excited, the rest would turn on them with a barrage of questions and reasons why it was not possible. They lacked confidence as a group.  What had happened? 

We strategized some conversations for him to have with his leadership, past and present. After a few weeks, we were able to discern that the pastor who served two appointments prior to him had severely over-functioned. He controlled everything. Everything. The congregation was pushed out of planning or managing anything. If they did participate, they were often chastised for not doing it exactly as the pastor had envisioned. Eventually they just gave up.  New people quickly learned this was a church where they attended, not participated.

The next pastor came in but only lasted two years. She didn’t understand the apathy and blamed herself for being unable to motivate the congregation. The experience harmed her spiritual self-worth and faith in her calling and she left for a new appointment as an association, unsure of her leadership abilities. 

My client needed to rebuild the confidence of leadership to accomplish tasks and make decisions. It was a slow process, but with intentionality, it worked. If you find yourself in a similar situation, or have some other congregational issue you can’t quite seem to put your finger on, consider a few sessions with Whole Soul Consulting to see if we can help you identify and solve the problem that is keeping your congregation from living up to who God has intended them to be. Visit us at www.wholesoulconsulting.org for more information. 

Shaking off a Gunshot Wound (Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7)

It was about 6:30am on Sunday morning. I was in my pj’s, in my comfy chair, drinking coffee and going over my sermon. Sunday mornings were a quiet, relaxing time until about 8:30am when I would walk the few blocks to the church to greet our homeless guests who were at the church for breakfast and the volunteers who made it happen, and then prepare for worship.  Living in the heart of the city, I didn’t have a car as everything I needed was within walking distance.

The sun painted the awakening sky with a canvas of color. And then my phone rang. Our head trustee, a regular breakfast volunteer. Not a good sign. I got the words “Hi Tr….” before he cut me off. 

“Someone’s been shot. Ambulance on the way. Wait, wait…..something is happening! I’ll call you back.” 

I threw on jeans and sneakers and was out the door in a panic, and literally ran the entire way to the church. I arrived to see the ambulance leaving, police tape surrounding our parking lot, the possessions of our homeless guests scattered everywhere, and police taking statements. 

The trustee who had called saw me running up and came to explain. 

Apparently a drug deal had gone bad a few blocks away and a young man had been shot in the shoulder. He ran from the scene, saw people in our parking lot and thought he could hide in the crowd. Everyone heard the shots fired and when a volunteer saw the bleeding man run up, she called 911 and one of our homeless guests went to get more volunteers from the Fellowship Hall where breakfast was being set up. 

The head trustee was the first one outside and asked the young man if he needed help. 

“No, man, I’m cool” he replied as he seemed to be trying to Shake Off A Gunshot Wound. 

He was taken to the hospital for treatment and would be fine. But we had a bigger problem. Our church was a crime scene and we had about 150 homeless people needing the breakfast that was behind the crime scene tape. Matthew 26: 11 and Mark 14: 7 both tell of Jesus telling the disciples that the poor will always be with us. So we’d better find ways to make them a priority when shit hits the fan.

The police were sympathetic to our cause.  They knew what we did each week and that we ran a responsible and safe program, never hesitating to call for help when we deemed a situation beyond our abilities (which when working with populations with high levels of mental illness and substance abuse would happen). They released the far end of the building to us and we were able to funnel our guests through the building, down the stairs and into the Fellowship Hall. This took some extra volunteers and many of our frequent guests jumped in to help. 

Once we got the food going again and our new plan put into action, I went downstairs to talk to our guests. From atop a chair, I thanked our guests for being patient while the police worked and while we got the meal warmed back up and put out. Their response caught me a little off guard. They thanked us for not canceling the breakfast and expressed surprise that in the midst of the chaos, we were concerned for them. They asked about the man who had been shot, and together we prayed for his healing and gave thanks for the police in protecting us all. 

Many of our guests had left their belongings in the parking where we served coffee and donuts while breakfast was being prepared. It was all technically evidence in a crime scene.  To be away from their belongings was stress inducing for our guests; for many it was all their worldly possessions. The police said it could be hours before the scene was fully released back to us, which didn't work for us for many reasons, most importantly that our guests were not going to leave without their possessions which meant they would miss the next free meal. We didn’t have the resources to provide lunch for everyone too. 

So with a police escort, one by one I brought our guests to the parking lot, they identified their belongings (which we confirmed by having them describe something unique inside them), the officers checked them for evidence (blood spatters mostly) and then released the items. This took over an hour, after which I ran back home (literally), showered, dressed, printed my sermon, and walked quickly back to start church. 

You truly never know what a day will bring. When a crisis hits, you have to think fast and trust your instincts. Try to smile and be calm. If you are panicked and flustered, your leadership (formal or informal) will be too. If you are upset, their instinct will be to protect and comfort you, but you need your leadership attentive to the problem, not to you. 


As the hours and days move forward, don't pretend a crisis didn't happen. We talked about it in worship, prayed for all involved, and I addressed it in my sermon. You can spend 20 hours crafting your sermon (which you should) and then something will happen Sunday morning or earlier to make it irrelevant. And how can worship be relevant if your sermon is not?  

A Sermon Response Can Make You Cry

For all the work we (should) put into sermons, rarely do we receive any response other than “great one today, preacher” or the ‘eyes cast down’ look as people pass you at the door when it doesn’t go well. We might never know the impact a sermon has an individual, so when you do receive meaningful feedback, cherish it. 

As part of the Worship Design Studio stewardship sermon series “Moving Out of Scare City”, I preached a sermon on Genesis 28:10-22 and 1st Timothy 6:17-19.  (www.worshipdesignstudio.com

The sermon was about the violation of the human/divine relationship that occurred when the Church declared that within the confines of the sanctuary is the only place we meet God. Not only does this idea seek to take away direct laity-God relationships, but it limits the divine world to singular spaces. 

Carins I came upon while hiking
outside Estes Park, CO
We talked about the pillars of stone that Jacob builds to note the places he encountered God, and how this is replicated all over world, most notably in Ireland and Scotland where Carins, or stone pillars are built to make a place as holy. 

 Altars are built for that same reason: to designate a place as holy. Catholic, protestant, Buddhism, Hinduism and so many other traditions have altars. But altars are built of ordinary things: stone, wood, plastic, all becoming holy because of our experience with them. 

The sermon shared Barbara Brown Taylor’s notion that, “Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish - separating spirit from flesh, secular from sacred, church from the world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinction between the two.” 
Every kitchen table, coffee table, park bench and sidewalk has the potential to be a place of divine connection and to be an altar.    

The wobbly old plant stand turned
communion table on which I served
communion to thousands of homeless
on the sidewalk over the years
A few days later I met with a young woman who had been at the church for the previous two Sundays. I knew she was from out of town, living in the hospital eating disorder unit as she recovered from anorexia. Being downtown, our church was walking distance from several hospitals, domestic violence shelters, and other residential treatment centers. We often had guests for a few weeks or months during treatment.

She shared that since my sermon, she began to see the dining table in the unit as an altar, and the food placed upon it as a sacred gift from God. With her journey towards healing linked to God, she was finally making progress and gaining a little weight. 

We cried together. Her at this step in her healing, me in humility that something I said had given her a new vision and was part of her transformational journey. 


We never know how our words will touch the people who hear them, but it is a gift to have the opportunity to speak them. Often church leadership does not understand the time and energy that goes into sermon crafting. They want you at meetings and at the youth group and teaching a class and visiting and volunteering. The sermon is only 20 minutes long, how long can it really take to write? An hour? Your sermons have the ability to transform lives, but only if you take seriously your role in sharing God’s word and put in the time and energy it deserves. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

When Things Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong In Worship

The day we set the Pride flag on fire (by accident, of course!) 

My most recent congregation was Reconciling (the third church in the nation, 1986!) and we often had a small Pride rainbow flag on the altar amidst the candles and other items relevant for the worship theme. One Sunday morning I was preparing to bless the offering, and when I approached the altar, I noticed a wisp of smoke, thicker and darker in color than the smoke emitted by the candles. 

As I looked closer, I was horrified to realize the Pride flag had fallen over, landed on a tea light, and was on fire! A moment of panic, a slight hyperventilation. What to do? 

Not wanting to disrupt the sacred moment or draw attention to the incident, I hurriedly instructed the congregation to close their eyes and bow their heads (which was not our typical practice) and while I prayed (extemporaneously, never wished for a memorized prayer more in my life) I moved the flag off the candle and quietly tapped out the small flame with my hand (ouch!).  When it was out, I moved the burned flag to under the altar cloth. 

At the leadership meeting the following week, I presented flag and told the story. We all had a good laugh about it, and replaced the flag. We may be the only GLBTQA friendly church in the nation that has burned the Pride flag during worship.

Things happen, you can’t control every element of worship. And you shouldn’t try. Worship is an act of love towards a perfect God by imperfect people. Don’t stress about mistakes in the bulletin or a page from your sermon going missing or a child having a massive meltdown during silent prayer time.  If you are too focused on worship being ‘perfect’, chances are you will not be able to immerse yourself in the act of worship or find yourself in the presence of God. Worship should be taken seriously, but not so seriously that one element going wrong will derail your whole service. 

If you are having trouble adjusting to leading worship on a regular basis or experiencing so much anxiety surrounding worship that you can't seem to relax and find the Spirit, consider a few sessions with us at Whole Soul Consulting. Visit us at wholesoulconsulting.org for more information.