Failure to thrive

What does failure look like in a church?

Is it when the building shows noticeable deferred maintenance, or when the membership number dips below a certain level? Has a church failed when there are no more children running up the aisles or when the choir is made up of only a few sopranos (why yes, I am an alto!)?

I’m not sure our answer to that question changes due to a pandemic. The church isn’t a failure when it no longer occupies its building or because we can no longer sing hymns together.  I don’t believe we are only successful when our pews (and plates) are full. Certainly, the New Testament church didn’t have tall steeples and large fellowship halls in which to accomplish its mission. However, our metrics for success don’t seem to translate well in this pandemic season.

Six months in we’re starting to ask “what if this is it”? What if we can’t return to our buildings? Can we still be the church?

Throughout the life of the church we’ve made changes and adapted and reformed our ways of doing things. I’m not talking the small stuff (although kudos to the church that moved from donuts during coffee hour to also offering fresh fruit!). I’m referring to all the times in history where we’ve adapted to our changing context. As products of the Reformation, we hold to the belief that we are reformed and always being reformed!

I think we forget how difficult those changes were in the moment. The day that Grandma showed up in pants to serve Communion was no doubt followed by several heated meetings and a few folks leaving the church.  

Or, perhaps we remember all too well how difficult those changes were, and we want to avoid potential conflict. The day we ordained LGBT folks was no doubt proceeded by several heated meetings and a few folks leaving the church.

The reality is that a massive change in our context has occurred. We will either continue to find ways to respond to it faithfully… or we don’t. 

What does failure in the church during a pandemic look like?

The same as it does during “normal” times.

The church has failed when it forgets its purpose and its calling and is no longer working toward the Great Ends of the Church: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. 

Here’s the thing…. the church has found ways to be the church in spite of world wars, natural disasters, the Great Depression and huge economic fallout. And pandemics. In other words, this isn’t our first rodeo. More to the point, it won’t be the coronavirus that causes the church to fail. It will be our inability to remember our baptism, our calling and our purpose.

Yes, this is difficult work. It’s also the work we’ve been called to accomplish… faithfully. The good news is we don’t do it alone. Our God is in the middle of it all, and we have our siblings who walk alongside us as well.

Didn’t sign up for this!

It’s not exactly what we signed up for.

I mean, we were called to this work and knew it would require intelligence, imagination and love (and energy, so much energy!). Many of us learned how to fix lawn mowers as well as the details of correct concrete application to avoid spalling. We dove deep into scripture for Sunday morning and researched games for youth group for Sunday night. We adapted and adopted and some of us even started wearing shoes (it’s a long story).

But this? Doing ministry from a distance? 

We’ve met the technical challenges of our work with grace. Researched new sound and light equipment and figured out how best to be heard in parking lots and on the side lawns of our buildings. We’ve done adaptive work as well and taken the balcony view to try and figure out what is really happening, and how it will impact ministry for the next generation. We’ve held hands virtually with those who are grieving and have conducted funerals via Zoom. Within moments we changed how we worked, worshipped and ministered.  

We did so because we were called to this work… but this isn’t what we signed up for, and frankly, this is hard.

Teachers returning to the classrooms might say the same thing.

Those in the healing and helping professions…

Grocery clerks. Librarians. 

The list goes on and on.

If there was ever a time for deep compassion and patience, it is now.

Your child’s teacher is juggling more than they have ever dealt with, and that is saying a lot. The guy at the register just had to put up with several customers upset about the lack of (fill in the blank with this week’s item of scarcity). The scheduler at the Doctor’s office has to ask those questions, even if you think it’s obvious you’ve not been out of the country.

And your pastor? Well, there are days when your pastor is ready to quit. 

Thom Rainier breaks it down in his article “Six Reasons Your Pastor is About to Quit” where on top of the general weariness felt by all of us, he lifts up congregational infighting (in-person vs. online, mask vs. unmask, etc.), increased workload and criticism as well as the concern for the future of ministry (not just financial concerns, although those are also very real in many congregations).

He doesn’t offer a solution.

I also don’t offer any solutions to all of the above, except the reminder that none of us signed up for any of this… and yet we are still called to be people of grace and peace. We are still called to love one another deeply and sacrificially.  We are still called to bear one another’s burdens. We are still called to be the Church.  

We are still called.  All of us.

Fear is the Culture Killer

(With apologies to Herbert)*

This past week I confronted one of my fears.  I went kayaking!

The fear wasn’t being on the water, nor was it tipping over. No, my fear was that with my bad knees I’d never get out of the boat and back on terra firma without someone wielding a winch! (To my new friends at the Lakeside Park boat launch in Cazenovia, thank you ever-so-much for not laughing even though you were presented with several opportunities to do so.)

Fear can be an overwhelming emotion. In my case, it hits me in the gut causing indigestion and stomach pain. Other fears have resulted in restless nights or have caused me to sit paralyzed at my desk wondering how I can ever move forward.

Fear can keep you safe… which is not a bad thing! (Wash your hands!)

The trouble seems to be in navigating when our fear is justified (fire = hot! mask = good!) or when it is the overworking of our own minds. When the latter is confronted, no winch is needed and the joy is immeasurable.

Organizations also experience fear and in a way that can be more difficult to navigate. Management guru Peter Drucker quipped “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, but the corollary to this is that “Fear eats culture as dessert” (okay, that one’s mine… and it needs a bit of work, but you get the idea).

Fear keeps us from being who we are called to be, and if that isn’t bad enough, there are those in this world who will use our fear against us.

Fear occurs in organizations that have no clear understanding of their mission, and/or are fuzzy on their values. It’s fear that keeps bullies in power, and conflict under the floorboards where it can do the most harm. Fear is what keeps us from doing what we know is right, and true and just.

And so, we steer clear of fierce conversations. We allow bullies to control what direction we will paddle. We permit bad behavior, because we fear retribution. We don’t take risks because that’s no longer in our nature. We forget who we are.

We forget Whose we are… because we belong to the fear and not to the Love.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)

I can’t describe the delight I felt on the water. The kayaking was fun, but it was the buoyant joy at facing my fears and the sense of returning to myself that was nothing short of elation.  Remember who you are. Remember Whose you are.

*Yes, I’m a geek. Yes, this is from Dune.

The Shiny.

Communal distraction is a thing. 

Exhibit A? Tiger King. 

Distraction is a coping mechanism. It’s generally passive – and is a focus on something other than what is a primary concern. As someone who has had the occasional panic attack, I can attest that it can be a helpful tool. My hunch is that having a communal distraction or two (shiny!) these last five-and-a-half months has not been a bad thing, although Tiger King, bread-baking and closet reorganizing are sooo “early pandemic”.  These things (and those that follow) distract us from a problem that we have no control over.

Distraction (communal and individual) becomes a problem when keeps our attention from confronting an issue where we have agency.

I know a Session that had debated what color to paint the women’s bathroom for months. They conducted a survey and then decided to bounce the decision to the women’s group (seeing as they would be the primary users). When the women’s group had selected a color (yet another survey as well as some political maneuvering) their decision came back to the Session which then began the heated debate about the appropriate finish (eggshell in a bathroom?!). The selection of the contractor went to the Buildings and Grounds committee whose Chair was not at the subsequent meeting of the Session and therefore couldn’t report their decision. By the time she was able to connect with the Session for final approval almost a year had passed since the discussion had started.

The bathroom was painted in a day.

Imagine what might have been done with the time and energy that was spent on that decision?  

Imagine what conversations and confrontations they were able to avoid?

Yes. Communal distraction is a thing. 

Exhibit B? Having the conversation about when to reopen the building every month. 

So much energy has been sucked into this technical discussion by so many of our good folks that it makes me wonder what conversations we might be having instead.  Don’t get me wrong, this is critical work for the safety of the communities we serve… but if this conversation dominates the meeting every month it might signal that it’s a distraction (if you’re not repeating this conversation, good for you! What are you talking about that really doesn’t need that much attention?)

If your Session made the decision that you’d not revisit opening the building until January 2021, what might you do with the time and energy to make the next few months a time of creative witness to the Gospel? Or what if the timing of reopening were connected to a specific indicator (www.covidactnow.org is a great resource for this), as well as a potential trigger for closing the doors? How can you make the opening/closing not only easy on your leadership but also free up the space to ask the questions you’ve been dodging – like “what have we learned about our congregation during this pandemic” and “what is our part in systemic racism?” and “were we spiritually prepared to be isolated, and if not, how might we work on that?”.

What are we avoiding that we have the power to confront?

Seek first the Kin-dom of God, my friends.

Still filled with hope.

If I can channel the inspiration behind Ben and Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia”… “lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been”.  A year ago, I was a long-term guest of the Candlewood Suites over by Carrier Circle in Syracuse.  I’d drive back to Maryland for a few days every week or so to reconnect with my spouse and cat (not in that order!) and then return to my hotel and the work of being a brand-new Resource Presbyter. Those trips were exhausting, especially through Pennsylvania (our family jokes that whenever we’re on a trip, it’s as if we are always half-way through PA.)  

How do you while away the hours on a road trip?  I’m fond of singing out loud (windows rolled down, of course!) everything from show tunes to bawdy 18th c. camp songs. No doubt I am offering entertainment and amusement for my fellow pilgrims on the road. Five hours each way also offered plenty of time to dream about the challenges that awaited me in Syracuse. So much work to do and such good people to do that work with? I was filled with hope.

And now?  After over five months of physical distancing?

Still filled with hope.

Here is why: God hasn’t changed.  In many ways, the work we are called to do hasn’t changed.  What has changed are the tools we use to do that work as well as the urgency. There has been a bit of an unveiling during these COVID times; a revealing of sorts.  We’re learning together what we really value, as well as what we might put aside.

When I first started here I quoted J. Gordon Kingsley who wrote that leaders…”need to learn the song of the tribe in order to sing the song of the tribe so that others can find their place in the song and then, together, write the next verse”.  This pandemic hasn’t changed that.  Together we are beginning to hear old and new voices that are looking for where they fit in the song…. And again, I am filled with hope.  As those voices are lifted up and we sing this song together, we will write the next verse.  I don’t know what the future holds, or what that next verse will be, but I am confident we will write it and sing it together.

(With the windows rolled down, of course.)

SHIELDS UP! RED ALERT!

The bridge of the Starship Enterprise lists to the port as it takes a direct hit.  Sirens blare as the hapless crew is tossed about.  The entire crew is in battle mode, and their one focused goal is survival.

Yeah, I’m a bit of a Trekker.

This archetypal scene (which always makes me wonder why they didn’t wear seatbelts) has been resonating with my life during a pandemic.  The year 2020 seems like one unending battle against unknown forces.  There have been days when I’ve imagined this novel coronavirus as some sort of alien that has invaded us as some external threat.

Sometimes the perceived threats are from a bit closer to home.

At Tuesday night’s Presbytery meeting I shared that one of our members criticized our June meeting as it did not engage the Presbytery in regards to the issue of police brutality and racism.  I also shared my initial response that was akin to the Enterprise taking a shot to her hull.  My shields were fully engaged, red lights were pulsing and I felt a bit nauseous from the tossing about (again, seatbelts).

This wasn’t an attack, however.  It was a correction.

The difference between the two is not based on my reaction, but rather on the intent and approach of a colleague. His letter was steeped in theology, reminding me of the foundation on which we both stand.  This wasn’t a snide comment on my inappropriate dress for church (which has happened!), this was a focused effort to realign a community back toward the theology it espoused.

My hunch is that there will be other opportunities in the near future for me – for us – to raise our shields.  My hope and prayer is that we will discover that those “attacks” are also an effort to realign us to the theological values that we share.  This is what we are called to do for one another – we are to firmly and lovingly hold one another accountable.

Now, excuse me as I toss out the red shirts in my closet.[1]


[1] In Star Trek, The Original Series, those who wore red shirts were part of the security team and were generally the ones who were killed. It’s hard to stay in dialogue if you’re wearing a red shirt.

Mid-Life Crisis?

Churches and other organizations are struggling with their sense of purpose; individuals (clergy and others) are questioning their vocations.  We are all asking questions about who we are NOW, as well as whether we really like who we are NOW.

It’s as if we’re all collectively sighing and asking if this is it, or as Dante’s protagonist quipped “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

In other words… welcome to our shared mid-life crisis (of sorts).

Now, if this were truly a mid-life crisis (of sorts) we might consider working through the experience with a good therapist.  We’d be invited to talk about our disappointments surrounding our lives and our response to it.  Perhaps we’d grieve a bit together about relationships lost and plans set aside.  We’d talk through our anxiety and concern about what life is like now – collectively, and individually – because grief isn’t something you find a path around. Eventually, we’d have worked through the box of Kleenex and we’d sit up a bit straighter and begin the work of “what comes next”.

What does come next?  I’m not asking when you’re reopening the buildings, or what your ratio of people to hand sanitizer looks like… I’m asking what future God is calling you to build.  How has this season changed you, changed your organization, changed your community?  

How we have reacted to this season says much about us as individuals, and as a church.  What we do next will speak volumes about our priorities as well as our understanding of purpose.  

Disappointment 101

Monday afternoon I took a knife to some lovely ears of corn and prepared corn chowder for dinner.  I loaded everything into my handy Instapot, pushed the appropriate buttons and went back to my desk.  

Pro Tip #1: Corn chowder can go from creamy yellow to blackened char within a matter of minutes if your pressure cooker isn’t properly sealed.

Pro Tip #2: Panera makes a lovely corn chowder and still has curbside delivery.

My response to this “burnt offering” was to sob somewhat uncontrollably for a few minutes, and then reflect on how my reaction was a bit… exaggerated… given it was just a few ears of corn and a bit of my time.  When I drilled down a bit I realized that amongst all the other emotions I was feeling, the prevailing one was disappointment.  Oh yes, there was also anger, sadness, and frustration at this surreal world and the uncertainty and injustice… but, in that moment, what came to the top was overwhelming disappointment.

The literature suggests that disappointment is generally caused by a disconnect between our expectations and the resulting reality.  Unchecked it often gives way to rage or apathy, however, if we take the time to examine why we are feeling this way it can give us incredible insight into what we value.

As we begin to return to our sanctuaries, I encourage you to make time to discuss the disappointment that we all will inevitably feel.  Yes, it will be wonderful to be back in sacred space and to see each other’s eyes… but it won’t be the same.  Plan to talk through the experience with your leadership so that your community can benefit from learning more about what you really value.  How do those values compare with those you’ve previously claimed? Dig out your mission and/or vision statement.  Is there resonance there, or a disconnect?  How does that inform your understanding of your congregation?

Disappointment may sound like a second-tier emotion – it doesn’t have the same flair as anger or the numbing nature of depression, but its impact can be significant.  Ignore it at your peril.  And, stir your soup.

The end?

And just like that, a vote is cast and it is the end of an era.

Whether our vote is to close a church, end a marriage, choose hospice or to sell a camp there is always a mix of emotions and second-guesses.  We wonder what would have been.  We find ourselves thinking of all the “should haves” and “could haves”.  We cast blame on others, as well as on ourselves.

Photo by Jill Kilts

There should be finality to it, but there’s not.  Even if something should happen that suddenly offers the opportunity to reverse the decision – everything is forever changed.  

And so we grieve.

We grieve not for what we’ve lost, but for what might have been.  Perhaps with the right pastor, or an infusion of cash… perhaps with more counseling or an effective treatment things could have been different.  We mourn the past as well as the future.

At last night’s Presbytery meeting we voted to sell the Vanderkamp Center. VK has been offering camp since the late 1960’s and was a joint effort on the part of our Presbytery as well as the Presbytery of Utica and the ELCA folks in upper NY. These two partners in this ministry had voted to sell the camp… and have been waiting on our decision.  It was the sort of vote that cut to the heart of many even as we recognized that there were no other options.  In order to purchase the camp from the other two judicatories, we’d need to spend every cent we had… and find another 300K.  The necessity of the sale doesn’t make it any easier, or more palatable.

The good news is that we are a resurrection people.  We know that the end is not always the end.

Last night spoke a great deal to who we were as we made that decision… what happens next speaks to who we will be as God’s people after this decision. The funds from the eventual sale will echo the values of Vanderkamp (as per NYS non-profit law).  Because of this, there will be a legacy that honors those who first had a vision for that sacred ground as well as those who laughed and cried there and those that gave time, talent and treasure to its mission.

There are other ways to continue the legacy.  Rita Hooper is coordinating the “Friends of Vanderkamp.”  (If you’d like to join their efforts, you can find them on Facebook or by emailing her at twohoops2@gmail.com).  I’m also working on developing a website that celebrates the camp in stories and photos.  It’s still in the rough stage (it won’t be quite right until you send me your own story!) but you can find it here: http://www.celebratingvanderkamp.org. We will also try to find time to gather safely at the camp for one last campfire.

Prayers for us all during this difficult season and particularly at this difficult time.

The Magic Pew

Do you believe in magic?[i]

Not the sleight of hand or “where did the elephant go?” sort of stage magic, but the sense that certain things must be done in certain ways in order for something to happen?  Not a recipe, per se…. but a way of controlling something normally beyond our control.  It’s the lucky shirt you wear to the game or Grandma’s pie plate that has never failed to turn out a perfect crust.

It’s that pew you sit in every week; perhaps because it’s the pew your grandfather sat in or it’s the first pew where you honestly felt comfortable in church.  If you had to move? Change pews? The magic is gone.  (For those of you feeling somewhat smug, imagine if we didn’t sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve.  It’s that sort of thing.)

We’ve had a few months of not being able to sit where we know we belong, where we’ve felt the magic happen, and for some folks it may feel like we’re losing our religion (or that we’ve lost God).

I wonder if that is why we so desperately desire to go back to our sanctuaries.  It’s beyond a sense of comfort and familiarity, but rather a desire to connect with that which has seemed fleeting via Zoom or Facebook Live.  We miss one another, yes, but I think on some level for many have never found God anywhere else.  We miss that sacred space… that sacred geography.

We profess that we worship a God who cannot be enclosed by the boxes we create.  We worship a God who has spun the very stars into existence and who also knows every hair on our head.  We claim to be in relationship with One who is not bound by space (or time) but is our very breath, and yet our pew is still our pew.  Our church building is still our church building, and if we aren’t there we have no real access to God.

This understanding of magical and sacred space happens outside of church as well.  As we begin as a Presbytery to make decisions about Vanderkamp, it’s helpful to remember that this has been sacred ground for many.  It is a place where, like your favorite pew, there are memories and moments that are held dear.  For some it is where their relationship with Jesus was kindled around a campfire, or in the quiet of a cabin. This is more than a camp – it’s a place where folks regularly encountered God.

Breathe deep, friends.  Grieve.  Lament.  Mourn…. and know that this relationship we have with God is so much more than place.  I don’t know what the future will bring.  I do know that the Spirit will be there in the middle of it… regardless of whether we are in our sacred spaces or at home on our couches.  There’s nothing magical about it.


[i] The anthropologist in me understands the difference between magic and religion is one of control.  Magic, by definition, is defined by human agency.  By doing things in the right way, things normally understood as beyond the ability of humans to influence are impacted.  Crops grow.  Sickness is cured.  Weather patterns change.  With religion, adherents may become supplicants – those pray or beg deities they believe in for crops to grow, sickness to be cured, etc., but the power to do so belongs to the supernatural.  Of course, this is a simplistic explanation, and the lines I’ve just drawn are blurred in any number of ways.