Posts By Karen Chamis

Present company…

In the world of the Enneagram, I’m a 7. (For those unfamiliar with this insightful tool, a great introduction is the book “The Road Back to You” by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile). What you need to know this means for my personality is that I’m a planner.

No, that’s not quite right.

I’m an obsessive planner. I will spend hours planning what the coming days and weeks will look like, from the work that will be accomplished to the gifts I will give family members over the next several years. Meals? Menus and shopping lists are forever being revised in my head. Even crop rotations for my ten acres on Tug Hill (yes, I’m serious).

Like other 7s, I can’t understand how those without this tendency function. For years I asked my spouse what his plans were for the weekend because I assumed he had spent just as much time working through all the possibilities when Bill (definitely NOT a 7) was instead spending his time enjoying the present.

You can imagine how this weird tendency to continually plan has impacted my ability to honor my commitment to “…need to learn the song of the tribe in order to sing the song of the tribe…” in this new Calling. I’m working on several different strategic maneuvers for this Presbytery in my brain when my covenant with the good people of Cayuga-Syracuse is to learn to sing the song of the tribe first.

I’ve promised to be present in part so this isn’t about me… but it is about “us”. There is an incredible bonus to this – I’ve learned that when I am truly present, I taste the incredible meal that I’m sharing with Seniors at one church and I see the light shining through the colorful windows at another. I hear (and feel!) the deep concern of members who wonder and worry about what will happen to the church they’ve cared so deeply for, and I delight in the joy of children praying for a member of their cohort who has just received his first Bible. I know that our God has been with me in the past, and I trust that our God will be with us in the future… but when I challenge myself to be present I know that God is with me now, and I know that that is more than enough.

Sometimes congregations seem stuck between living in the past and fearing what will happen in the future. As leadership meets to discuss what happened last month, and what needs to be done in the months to come, I wonder what would happen if we really took the time to be present in the moment? If we offered more than a perfunctory prayer, but instead chose to set aside time to abide in the abundant grace of God? Or, instead of huddling during coffee hour with like-minded folk to discuss the current state of affairs, what would happen if we relished this common time together? What would happen if we took time each day to be fully present to one another and the workings of the Spirit and focused on the holy work of “abiding”?

As for this obsessive planner… I’m working on it, just as surely as God continues to work on me. Just don’t ask me about my list of knitting projects.

Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred….

If you are of a certain generation, or if you love musicals, I’ve just given you an ear worm. I’d apologize, but at least it’s a really GOOD ear worm (and not something like “Baby Shark”. Oops.)

For those who aren’t pleasantly humming along, the song is “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent. The numbers refer to the number of minutes in a year, and the lyrics are reflective in nature and beg the question of appropriate metrics. How do we measure a year of our lives? The as the lyricist here suggests that we measure our seasons in love. *

How do we measure a life?

How do we measure a congregation’s life?

Is it the number of bulletins run off on a Sunday morning, or the size of the choir? Is it the successful capital campaign, or the number of folks who come to the food pantry? How do we measure our life together?

For too long we church folk have been captivated by the 3 B’s…. Buildings, Butts and Bucks. We’ve measured our success by these three metrics, and when they begin to fail, we panic. If we’re not the most successful church on the block, who are we? What are we?

More importantly, what if we’ve been measuring the wrong thing all this time?

As I begin to move around the Presbytery and visit congregations and their leaders, I’m often given a tour. I’ll confess, I’m a bit of a sanctuary junkie. I love church architecture, and stained glass makes me swoon. Cayuga-Syracuse has its share of gorgeous churches.

What I’m finding myself captivated by is not the beautiful wood and the lofty arches, but rather the stories I hear about how our congregations have helped transform lives. Beautiful buildings fade into memory, but lives that have been changed because someone has seen the Gospel enacted and has come to desire a relationship with our God? Those stories, those memories, they last. I find myself reflecting on them after the visit, and lifting up those involved in the story in my prayers.

Sort of like a good ear worm.

What lasting impression has your congregation made on your community?

*As an aside, Jonathan Larson who composed “Seasons” died unexpectedly the night before Rent premiered. His season is measured in the beauty and message of this song.

The Church of the Assumptions

I heard someone use the “you know what happens when you assume…” line the other day and cringed (and y’all know it wasn’t for the vulgarity!). The thing is, in order to get up each morning we need to have a certain number of assumptions lined up. Imagine what would happen if you didn’t assume your car would still be in its parking space each and every day? Our lives are based on a series of assumptions.

Where we run into trouble is when we set assumptions that have not been validated…. especially in assuming causal relationships. All of the below may be true but that can only be determined if they are tested:

  1. A pastor with a young family will bring in young families.
  2. Unless we have a drum set in worship, we aren’t relevant to younger generations OR everyone loves old hymns.
  3. The denomination started losing members because it became too social justice oriented OR because it didn’t address social justice issues soon enough.
  4. Growing deeper spiritually as a congregation is the best way to grow numerically.
  5. We aren’t attracting new people because a) our pastor’s preaching/personality/spouse; b) we no longer have __________.

Again, any of the above may be true… but the only way to determine that is to test the validity of the statement. The problem is, what may be true for one congregation isn’t necessarily true for another. Context is highly individualized.

So how do you go about testing the validity of your assumptions? External sets of eyes and ears can help when looking at the assumptions within a congregation – including the use of benchmark survey tools (Holy Cow! Consulting offers an excellent tool that also requires good interpretation).

Testing the assumptions about the needs of the community outside the walls can occur with demographic information, but the most important thing you can do to test your assumptions about your community is to spend real time in it! Walk around the neighborhood of your church. Talk with folks you meet about their needs and hopes (and don’t immediately start suggesting they need the answer to their problems is to staff your committees!)

Of course, it’s not just churches that need to challenge assumptions. Part of the work that I continue to do is to learn the song of this Presbytery, and that involves conversations with many different folks in different places. I’m still new enough that I’m not sharing the established collective assumptions y’all have been using… although I know this state of ‘assumptive innocence’ won’t last long!

Some assumptions are essential, and without them we couldn’t function. Others need a good poke from time to time! As we enter into this new season together, let us challenge our own assumptions, knowing, well…. you know what happens when you assume!

Who moved my… church?

Last week I set up my mobile office at the Scipioville Church. It’s a sweet country church building set back a bit from the road with a large expansive lawn. It’s the sort of church you imagine has been in that exact same spot for generations.

Except… it hasn’t.

Those who know the story of this church know that it was MOVED from one site to another in order to accommodate the building of a Fellowship Hall. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. Back in the early 1960’s, this congregation desired a place for fellowship and gathering so much they MOVED their building.

When I consider the sheer number of meetings, consultants, experts and bar fights that often accompany church decisions to… oh, I don’t know, change the paint color in the women’s bathroom… the magnitude of this move is mind-boggling. What an incredible undertaking!

As I toured the sanctuary I thought of those who must have had such a passion for fellowship with one another they were willing to move mountains (or churches!). It’s difficult to imagine a group of people having such a fire in their collective soul… and yet, I’ve seen glimpses of the same in other places. The Arlington Church in north Virginia sold its building in order to build affordable housing. Isaiah’s Kitchen has relocated in order to feed both body and soul. Something transformational happens when we look to where there is need and we are willing to sacrifice.

What are you willing to move in order to accomplish your congregation’s mission? This isn’t about restructuring committees… this is about tearing down in order to build up in a new way. Or, a bit closer to home, what are you willing to move in your own life that will help you accomplish the work you’ve been called to do?

The Space Between

I’ve got some significant quirks. For instance, my reading list is intentionally varied. I have several books going at once, but generally I try a literary diet that is comprised of non-fiction, “books I should have read in High School/College but didn’t” and Candy. The latter generally takes the form of Science Fiction and Fantasy (I’m currently re-reading Harry Potter which is against my rule of never reading a book twice).

I just finished The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. It’s going back in the reading pile to be read again… and soon. There was such a banquet of information that I know I’ve not begun to digest it all. I also have the sense that reading it a second time will help me to make some of the connections between his theory and my theology.

One of the central points to his thesis is that people’s beliefs are intuitively-based. It’s only after that initial gut reaction that we form reasoned rationale to substantiate what we’ve felt. Furthermore, much of that intuition is genetically based. We’re not hardwired to believe a certain way, but the science of DNA bears out that there are genetic preferences that are linked to evolutionary development. Liberals generally have the code that shows a preference for new experiences, whereas conservatives have a preference for stability. From an evolutionary perspective, there’s a need for both.

Ultimately, what does Haidt suggest will bridge the gap?

Relationships. For Haidt, what we need to pay attention to is not individuals, but rather, the space between individuals.

Conflicts bubble up in society, and often comes to a full boil within the church. We argue about critical things as well as spend time debating the color on paint chips. What if Haidt is right (I’ll admit, I’m persuaded!) and therefore much of what I believe about morality begins with my genetic code? Because if that is true for me, it’s also true for the person who I’d really rather not sit next to in choir rehearsal. Let’s not begin to talk about the Imago Dei – that we are all made in the image of God!

Church, we’ve become so good at debating, demonizing and distancing when what we need to do is to come together around the Table. I’m not suggesting we dial down the conversation but rather that we find ways of having difficult conversations that are embedded in meaningful relationships.

I’d love to hear what your church is doing to create these kinds of relationships within your congregation as well as outside the church walls. What kinds of relationship are you building? How might the Presbytery partner with you in creating space for all God’s people?

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Learning your song.

Hello, Cayuga-Syracuse!

I write this as I finish my first day of ministry in your midst, and as I prepare for the Presbytery meeting tomorrow.  I’m impatient (twitchy, even!) to get started – to plunge in head-first and to start casting a vision for what’s next…

But…

I’m not going to do that.

You Called me to be your Resource Presbyter, and although I’m pretty sure none of us are sure of exactly what that means, I’m pretty certain it doesn’t involve me casting a singular vision for our work ahead.  Rather, I believe my task is to help equip us as a Presbytery to discern that vision together so that our congregations can effectively (and effusively!) share the transformative love of Jesus Christ.

I need your help in this.

College President J. Gordon Kingsley wrote that the real work of leadership is to learn the song of the tribe in order to sing the song of the tribe – to help others find their place in the song so that they can be participants in writing the next verse.  Over the next few months I hope to spend time listening to your song.  I want to meet you and yours where you are, so that I can better learn your song and your story.

Borrowing an idea from Sharon Core (Presbytery of Western Reserve), I’m scheduling a “Mobile Office Day” once a week.  What this means is that I’d like to come to your church with my laptop and hotspot and perch there for a day.  We’ll let folks in the Presbytery know that I’m there and that if anyone wants to stop by to chat or to share lunch (brown bag at noon!) they’d be welcome.  All I need is a place to sit – a Sunday school room, narthex or coatroom.  My goal is not to inconvenience you… so if this is impractical, we will figure out another way I can learn a bit about your congregation’s context.

I also covet invitations to visit your church on Sunday mornings (I’ll happily sit in the pew*) as well as attend the various meetings in and around your church – Session, Deacons, Youth Groups, Bible Studies, Knitting Groups (please?), etc.  Just send me an email at kchamis@cayugasyracuse.org and let me know what works for your congregation.

I look forward to learning your song… learning OUR song as a Presbytery.

Blessings –

Karen

*Happy to preach if you need me to (no honorarium!) but I’d really love to experience worship on a ‘normal’ Sunday.

Thanksgiving and Tables

Today is my last day as Staff for National Capital Presbytery.

I’ll confess, it’s a bit surreal. There is so much I will miss about this ministry and those I minister with.  It has been a good four years.  My grief is tempered with the knowledge that I work in a connectional system, and trust that we will all meet again (and I’m not referring to the next General Assembly!).

My grief is tempered, but not alleviated entirely, because I also know things will never be the same.  What will I miss most about my work here?

The lunch table.

I didn’t make it to staff lunch every day – there were other tables and other meetings that called me away – but when I was there it was food for the soul.  We caught up on each other’s lives and debated minutia.  No topic was off-topic.  Sometimes things got heated, other times photos of weddings and grandbabies were shared.  We argued policy, we laughed deeply, we enacted again and again the promise of the Kin-dom through the breaking of bread.

We shared so much more than lunch.

No doubt there will be times when someone with whom I’m sharing lunch with will order salmon on a Wednesday (it’s a long story) or will do a deep-dive into a conversation about theology and politics… and I’ll have to explain my smile. I’m comforted by the hope of those other tables, including The Table – where we gather around with that great cloud of witnesses from every time and place… where we enact again and again the promise of the Kin-dom through the breaking of bread.

Years ago my family visited Santorini, Greece.  I worked hard at learning a bit of modern Greek but struggled with pronouncing “thank you”.  It was only the last day of our visit, when I was writing a card to thank the woman who changed the linens that I wrote the word in Greek and remembered that the word Eucharist means thanksgiving.  (Honestly, I felt both relief at being able to now pronounce the word and silly at the apparent waste of an education on me!)

This intertwining of thanksgiving and tables has never felt more real than it does today.  I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity I’ve had these four years to share lunch and life with these incredible people.

Grief, gratitude and tables of all sorts…. and love abides.

Dogged demographics.

When a congregation loses connection with its context, it becomes isolated from the greater community. It may still continue to serve its members with great worship, education and fellowship – but by losing connection with those in the community outside its doors it loses an opportunity to BE the church where it is planted.

An easy way to check your context is to look your demographics. The Presbytery I serve has a subscription for MissionInsite. (Holler if you want more information.) It is a helpful tool, allowing you to see who lives in your neighborhood.

In order for that tool to be truly effective, however, it requires you to have your mother walk your dog.

Let me explain. In one of my congregations, our Session had done the demographic study and we were pretty clear about who we were being called to serve. We began to brainstorm ways our wee church might address some pretty profound needs. After our brainstorming sessions, we’d feel hopeful… and then folks would get in their cars and drive home. This went on for months. We got really good at it!

Meanwhile… my folks came to visit, and Mom delighted in walking our family dog. I’d normally let the dog out in the yard… but Mom? Mom walked that pup all around the neighborhood. As she walked McGiffert, strangers would stop her to say hello and ask about the dog. Mom would invariably say that the dog belonged to the pastor of the Presbyterian church…. and more often than not, they would respond with surprise that they had no idea our congregation existed. She offered to pray for them – and to ask the church to pray for them. They shared their needs and concerns and life stories while McGiffert visited the closest tree.

Demographics on paper are helpful but only if they lead you to hear the stories those numbers represent.

How well do you know your church’s context?

When is the last time you walked around the neighborhood and talked with those who live near you?

Do you know their deepest needs?

Do they know your congregation cares about them?

(Modified from a recent Mission Impact post)

Peter Parker, Powers and Prophets

Note:  The words below are my own, and I do not speak for the Presbytery or the denomination that I serve.

Full confession:  I’m a geek.

I’m not the overt geek I once was (I’ve only purchased one graphic novel in the last three years and I’ve not (yet) seen Antman and Wasp and I’m sorely behind with some of Marvel’s offerings on Netflix) but my geek roots run deep.  What I’ve come to appreciate most about the various universes that have been spun into existence are the ways in which they address some of life’s central questions – specifically those about power.

Some of the most persuasive superhero stories are those where the villain’s intent is something we resonate with.  What if, with the snap of my fingers I could end suffering for half of the universe, even if it were at the expense of the other half?  What if by removing human agency, I could bring about peace?  And yet, we recognize that as infatuating as those ideas might be… they deny the core of what it means to be human.  We recognize that the true intent on the part of the villain is not to end suffering with that snap of the fingers… but to selfishly avoid dealing with his own grief.

As we approach the midterms, we watch as all sides attempt to amass power.  The extent to which they are willing to go (as individuals and as political parties) at times betrays their true intent.  Tragedies are used as a platform in order to gain votes, and are managed by those with that particular skill set.  In the midst of a community’s grief those who strategize to maintain power position themselves for photo opportunities – instead of discerning that the needs of the community to sit shiva may be more important.  Others engage in window dressing through the use of a religious personage only to have the curtain pulled away exposing that what was presented was instead a defrocked prop.

In the midst of this there is a prophetic voice stating: “It’s not all about you”.  This is not a place for you to gather power… this is a holy place for those who grieve to be held and comforted.  These are not words of hate, but rather words of anger and grief calling those in power to accountability.  This is the prophet Amos holding up the plumb line, demanding we check our privilege as well as the purpose for our striving for power.

Those who hold power should be held to greater accountability.  Remember, although we recall Uncle Ben telling Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility”* those words echo those of Jesus: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48).

Let us hold all who amass great power accountable.

 

*yes, I know that in the comic book itself these words were not those of the beloved Uncle Ben but instead belonged to the narrator.  Hush.

Three Feet.

It’s been almost two years since I last wrote a blog entry.  Amusingly, that entry was written two weeks after the election.  I’m not sure what exactly tipped the scale, or what proverbial straw overburdened this camel to the point of breaking… but something did break, and in the breaking something was released.

Certainly, the appointment of Kavanaugh had something to do with it.  Regardless of whether you believe Dr. Ford or not, his character was unveiled as he defended himself and in spite of the rampant partisanship he displayed he was confirmed.  Perhaps it has to do with the treatment of the clergy of our immigrant churches?  Or the up-tick in hate crimes and membership in White Supremacy groups?

Alternatively, perhaps it is the encouragement of dear and good-meaning friends who have responded to all of this with a reminder to us all to exercise our power in the ballot box.  I fear the rallying cry of ‘vote’ is all too similar to those who offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ after gun violence: these actions are important, but at this stage they are not enough.

Don’t misunderstand me, we absolutely need to get out and vote… and we need to muster everyone to exercise that responsibility regardless of political affiliation.  However, participation in democracy cannot end there.  Voting, similar to the aforementioned ‘thoughts and prayers’ can be done from a distance.  What is required in democracy (and, the Christian faith) can only be done in relationship.  

Robert D. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone paints a bleak portrait of an America with a trend toward social isolation.  More than anything, I think this trend has enabled the situation we are currently in.  These last few days I’ve encountered an antidote – Fear+Less Dialogues – that I find persuasive.  Dr. Ellison encourages us to see the invisible, hear the unheard and change the world three feet at a time and that change begins by seeing people as humans.

So… Vote.  Pray.  Write.  Protest.  Run for office.  Volunteer.  Smile at your neighbor.  Talk to the person next to you at the coffeeshop.  Join a choir.  Learn the names of the kids in the upstairs apartment.  See people.  Hear people.  Love people.

I’m going to start working on my three feet.