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The Age of the Antsy

It was only a few months ago that I found myself longing to turn to my favorite news sites and to read something other than COVID. Today I’m reminded of the warning to be careful what you pray for. 

Haiti. Cuba. Lebanon. South Africa. Iraq. From presidential assassinations to political uprisings, it feels as if these parts of the world are on fire. Closer to home, dentists are saying there has been a marked increase in teeth grinding and general practitioners have reported an uptick in chronic stress related illnesses. 

All of the above are perhaps not directly related to the pandemic, but it wouldn’t take much to find a causal relationship between the two. Speaking of relationships… there is no doubt this has also spilled into our relationships with one another as well. Divorce rates may have dropped during the pandemic as people clung to one another, but experts expect a surge as we re-enter our new reality. The “great resignation” suggests folks have had months to examine their commitments to work and volunteer opportunities and will take the next few months for rebalancing. It’s as if the world has gone topsy-turvy.

I anticipate things will be a bit antsy these next few months within our congregations as well. The time we’ve spent away from our buildings may have raised questions of value and purpose and power. We’re questioning anew not just what we do as the church, but who we are.

Don’t run from those questions. 

These last 15 months of doing something differently have taught us much about what it means to be the church… if we are willing to take time as leadership to digest that information. Don’t miss this opportunity: God willing, it won’t happen again.

Trust the Process

There are a few axioms that are part of Presbyterian canon. “Decently and in Order” is perhaps the most beloved, but there are others that work their way into the common work we do. I’ve always been a fan of “Frozen Chosen”, until a good friend pointed out that in his experience we were becoming “Awed and Thawed” (the jury on that is still out!).

“Trust the Process” may be for me not so much a statement of known truth as it is a prayer. The “Process” is the agreed upon means to get from one place to another. Because of our constitution (both parts!) we aren’t constantly reworking the larger processes. We elect folks who make decisions and ask them to do three things – to bring their very best gifts, to listen closely to the others at the table, and to discern the movement of the Spirit. 

When it works? When it works you know you are standing on holy ground. It’s a shoes-off moment. There is a feeling of hope and confidence and a deep joy that is not dependent on the nature of the decision… but in the knowledge that the decision was well-made. How I hope you know this joy, even when the decisions are difficult.

When it doesn’t work, my hunch is that it isn’t because the process failed us, but because we failed the process. There are so many ways we sabotage our work together:

  • We lean on the same leadership. Perpetually.
  • All the leadership looks the same
  • The real decisions are made in the parking lot
  • The pastor calls the shots – whether they want to or not
  • There are voices at our meetings other than those elected to be there
  • We focus on what we want for our church… and not what God wants for God’s church
  • We hold grudges and construct turf wars
  • There’s an agreed upon process… and then there is the one we follow
  • We fill seats on our boards instead of looking for folks with gifts
  • Leadership training is relegated to a few hours
  • We’ve tweaked the process to accommodate our context to the point where it is not recognizable

Of course, there are times when our process is broken. It’s fitting that we have a process to correct our process, no? We reform our Constitution constantly… even now there are Presbyterian siblings who are crafting overtures to our General Assembly for that very purpose.

All these processes exist for one purpose – to assist congregations in bringing the Good News to the communities in which they serve. May you know this joy as well!

Without a doubt?

I’ve recently become reacquainted with doubt.

Years ago, I learned to not fear doubt… we all have doubt from time to time. I hold fast to Tillich’s understanding that doubt is not the opposite of faith, rather it is a component of faith. In other words, I have doubt, only because I have faith. What is amazing is how those two things can coexist in my brain.

What am I doubting these days?

All sorts of things. From my wisdom to plant a garden prior to erecting a deer fence to a variety of decisions that have me questioning my sanity. One of my favorite memes is the quip: “Everything in life happens for a reason. Sometimes that reason is that I made a bad decision”. Doubt, at least for me, tends to run in cycles.

One of the reasons we Presbyterians center our polity on mutual discernment (via a representational democracy) is because it doesn’t negate personal doubt, but rather complements it. When an Elder brings to the Session table concerns (or doubts) about a decision, those concerns are heard and weighed against other inputs. We listen to one another’s wisdom and doubts and passions… and we listen for the Spirit breathing through them. God uses the doubts of one or two sitting at the table to refine a proposal and make it more sound. I’ve seen this happen at the meetings of Session and Congregations as well as with a body as large as our General Assembly. Certainly, God uses our faith… but what an amazing thing it is when God uses our doubts as well.

We continue to minister in a time where there is so much unknown, and undoubtedly(!) a fair amount of doubt. The pandemic has waned, but there continues to be lingering concern that it may not be done with us yet. Some church members cannot wait to return to regular in-person gatherings, whereas others have found worship from their couch to be a better fit. We discuss and debate topics that just two years ago weren’t even on our radar.

So much uncertainty. So much doubt.

Remember Tillich. Doubt is a component of faith. 

Might we use our doubts to be more faithful in our decision-making? I imagine if we were to do that, it would require us to listen deeply to those who express their concerns. It might mean putting aside our own certainty so that we could hear the voice of the other as clearly as possible. It would require us to be silent for a bit, and to listen for the Spirit speaking through the doubts and concerns of those we disagree with. It might be incredibly holy. It might look an awful lot like church.

Come doubt with me. Come share this faith.

You can do this hard thing.

I’ve recently discovered the music of Carrie Newcomer. I know, I know… so many people I trust have recommended her to me and I’ve not paid attention. I’m late to the party, but it’s not because I haven’t received multiple invitations!

These last few months I’ve been listening to her “You can do this hard thing” on repeat.

The song begins with the image of a young person attempting to do math, and hearing the encouragement of another who says, “You can do this hard thing. It’s not easy I know, but I believe that it’s so. You can do this hard thing.”. Other images are introduced, each being followed by the chorus. 

I weep each time I hear it. There is something about having someone acknowledge that the work is difficult combined with the promise that you have what you need to accomplish it that task. It’s the voice of a good parent, a good friend… and I believe these words resonate with the Gospel as well.

The bridge of the song includes a variation of Art Berg’s “While the difficult takes time, the impossible just takes a little longer”. There’s wisdom in knowing the difference between the two as well as wisdom in discerning what we are being called to do. 

In other words, I embrace that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, but I’m not convinced that Christ is calling me to do all the impossible things… if that makes sense?

As we emerge from the pandemic (I’m still holding my breath… and wearing a mask!) re-entry may be harder than we thought. There’s such joy at gathering in-person, but there may also be lingering anxiety…. which means we will need to be doubly gracious. No doubt we’ve also learned a bit about our work as the church, and that will bring up further questions (and debates!). It’s been wonderful extending the possibilities of virtual worship to those previously excluded, but are we willing to look beyond the occasional awkward moments as cameras are moved and sound is adjusted? These can be hard (but not impossible!) discussions at a time when all we want is that experience of joy.

Some congregations are facing more difficult… if not impossible questions. The first step is discerning if these are indeed the questions we should be raising. Staffing changes, shifts in mission emphasis, questions about the viability of church buildings – impossible things? Or are these questions whose answers will take a bit longer to resolve?

You can do this hard thing. It’s not easy, I know… but I believe that it’s so. You can do this hard thing.

Prayers for us all as we approach all the hard and impossible questions. If I can take this journey with you, please let me know.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #7

Dear Friends,

Over the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide, I’ve shared what I believe to be misconceptions of the church. Undoubtedly, I missed a few, but Pentecost is around the corner, the Wind is picking up, and there are other things that deserve our attention. Seven weeks of someone suggesting you are a bit off base is quite enough, right?

Ecclesiastical Misconception #7 – We are not enough

I love sitting around a table with church leaders and meeting them for the first time. These are individuals who are giving of their time and talent in a volunteer capacity and who often arrive at the table after a full day of responsibilities. If it is an evening meeting, some have chowed down on supper in the car, or will have it waiting for them to microwave when they return (or they will sneak bites during Zoom). From the very beginning of the church, God has called folks from a range of backgrounds and experiences and it is downright humbling to sit at the leadership table with them.

Sometimes it’s also puzzling. 

It’s almost as if there is a disconnect between what church leadership does in their day-to-day lives and what gifts they share at the table. It’s not exhaustion or over-extension (although there is no doubt that is real), but it seems in some cases as if all that life experience is checked at the door because they feel that it has no place in church leadership. 

It makes me wonder if that unseen barrier works both ways. If folks aren’t bringing their lives to the leadership table at church, are they bringing their faith to the other tables they encounter every day, such as the boardroom and supper table? 

I believe the church has been given all it needs to do the ministry it was called to do in this particular place and time. We are enough – because we do not do this work alone. We are enough when we bring our whole selves to this ministry because we’ve all been given different gifts.

In his article, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity[i], Walter Bruggeman tackles a theology of scarcity from an economic stance stating that there is always enough if we share. I believe Pentecost pushes us to live into a theology of abundance that is not only economic but reflects the fullness of our lives. We are to bring everything to the work of sharing the Gospel. Not just our wallets. Not just our Sunday selves. The whole sum of who we are.

Isaac Watts, the great writer of hymns captures this perfectly in the final verse of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love, so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”.

As the Spirit continues to blow through our churches and our lives… may we remember by the grace of God we are enough.


[i] Brueggemann, W. (1999). The liturgy of abundance, the myth of scarcity. Christian Century116(10), 342-347.

Ecclesiastical Misconception #6

I’ve addressed this misconception previously:  (Here!) – but it’s a song that still needs to be sung, so here goes…

Ecclesiastical Misconception #6: The Church is a Business

I believe we become confused because there are things in common between businesses and churches (spreadsheets, budgets, etc.). Yet, the same folks who assert that the church is a business would likely never say the same about a family, and yet many families I know have budgets. There are others I know that SHOULD have budgets, but that’s for another day.

This argument on my part was countered once by someone who stated that the difference was the presence of employees… that having employees is what made something a business. Ironic in that I knew the young woman who was currently his babysitter and being paid quite well for her efforts. I know (I hope?) he’d never consider his family a corporation.

A better, if not perfect metaphor, is to describe the church as a family. Certainly, it’s the metaphor underlying the scripture where Paul refers to us siblings. Some denominations even lean on that imagery in how they title their leaders (Father/Mother and Brother So-and-So).

Does all this matter?

It does in that one of the implicit goals of a business is to remain in business… something which doesn’t work well with the sacrificial understanding of the church spreading the Gospel even at the risk of its own life.[1]

It does in that how we see ourselves as a body changes how we see those next to us in the pew as well as those outside the walls. All too often the undercurrent of evangelism is not the hope of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ but instead the desire to bring in more energy/money to sustain our own fellowship.

It does in that there are things family will do for one another – things that family will put up with – that show that the grace of God is the bottom line. Businesses often can’t afford grace, family depends on it.

Next time you find yourself sitting in a pew (may that be soon!) think about how you are connected to those around you… as well as those outside the doors. Business partners/clients… or family?

May grace abound.


[1] Book of Order, F-1.0301  “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.”

Ecclesiastical Misconception #5

Doctor Who travels throughout space and time in something called the TARDIS[1]. If that weren’t marvelous enough, it is actually bigger on the inside than the outside, thanks to the inside existing in another dimension.

Ecclesiastical Misconception #5 is the belief that the church is the opposite, i.e., that we are smaller on the inside than we appear. Certainly, if you were to take a measuring tape, you’d find that the inside dimensions of any building are smaller than the external dimensions, however the church is not a physical building (if the last year or so has taught us anything… it has taught us that!)

We CAN be bigger on the inside than we appear, and yet we continue to make decisions as churches that limit who we let in. There have been times in our history where those limitations have been clearly defined  – including balconies for Blacks and blocking the ordination of women and LGBT folks – but there are other limits that we place upon the church that keep us small. 

Today we limit the church by making choices that favor the preferences of the folks already in our pews. Let’s say your church worships on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. but you learn that the community outside the doors would prefer worshipping on Sunday nights at 7 p.m.  One argument against starting a second service is that it might “split our community”. Of course, if you consider the folks outside the walls as members of the community, it could be argued that the community is already split into those who attend… and those who don’t. 

We tend to make decisions based on the needs of the existing congregation in part because we know them (because we ARE them). We need those reliable saints that already give of their time, talent, and treasure to continue giving. Why would we choose to jeopardize their offerings? Why should any organization risk the ninety-nine givers to reach out for the one outside the fold who is either a “none” or “done”?[2]

Yes, I know. It doesn’t make sense. It’s foolish. It’s sacrificial. It’s being the church.

When we make decisions based on the existing/giving congregation we are settling for a congregation that is exactly as it appears: smaller on the inside than it is on the outside. When practice the spiritual discipline of asking how our decisions might exclude those outside our inner circle from participating, we can become so much bigger than anyone could have imagined. Even if we end up not changing out time of worship, we may discover our hearts are also a bit bigger than they first appeared as well.


[1] Time And Relative Dimension in Space

[2] “Nones” are those who have no experience of church; “Dones” are those who have had experience within the church and for one reason or another, are DONE with it.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #4

Several years ago, I spent an hour with a couple who were foster parent for two small children. The amount of energy released by those two little ones during our visit caused the foster parents to glow with what I’m guessing was probably nine parts sweat to one part joy. Our conversation turned to the children (how could it not?) and I remarked how deeply I appreciated the ministry they were doing in the form of parenting. 

These foster parents talked about their ministry to care for these wee siblings as their own until their birth parents were able to safely care for them. For a time, they were theirs and treated as their own. In an attempt to be profound, I made some comment about how they were doing all of this work for these children on behalf of all of us (i.e., “society”) and therefore on some level, they were really “our” children.

I was gently corrected. “We’re not doing this because these children belong to society. We’re loving these children and giving them a safe place because they belong to God”.

Dang. Nothing like having folks preach to the preacher.  

It’s even better when I can use my own “foot in mouth” blunder to help frame yet another misconception of the church:

MISCONCEPTION #4a: IT’S NOT YOUR CHURCH

We get tripped up with the limits of language with this misconception. If I’m inviting someone to the Chicken BBQ (or, better yet, worship!) at the church where I spend hours every week, I will likely say something like, “hey, my church is having a BBQ… why don’t you come?”. This is grammatically correct, if theologically askew. On some level, we know the church doesn’t actually belong to us, but there is a relationship there, which gives me the right to use the first-person possessive.

We run into problems when that first-person possessive becomes actually possessive. We will sometimes counter that with making it the plural possessive “our” (profoundly showing that we know the church collectively belongs to all of us) leading to…

MISCONCEPTION #4b: IT’S NOT OUR CHURCH

We are stewards of this incredible collection of God’s children – caring for their needs, working for justice, teaching, preaching, baptizing, evangelizing – but we need to understand that we do so not because the church is “ours”.

The church universal has long debated the language of Matthew 16:8 in which Jesus says “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Step away from the debate about apostolic succession and look at the use of the possessive.  It’s not our church.

Those foster parents loved those children mightily with the understanding that using any sort of possessive was complicated. In the same way, we love the church and in serving fully we also glow with that nine parts sweat to one part joy. It’s not our church, but we will love it as fully as we can.

I don’t know what will happen in the next few years in this church I serve. I am fairly certain that the church that I have known all my life (“my” church) reached a tipping point some time ago and we’re just starting to pay attention to it. I grieve as congregations conclude their ministry, and as certain programs and mission are deemed unsustainable… but at the same time I hear the words “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”.

God is still in the middle of this. What emerges may not look anything like OUR church, but it will be the church of the Living Christ, and that will be enough.

Ecclesiastical Misconception #3

We are just about halfway through Eastertide and an exploration of ecclesiology (the study of the church). I’ve been focusing on some of the not-so-great myths and misconceptions of the church. Today’s misconception?

#3: VALUES MAY NOT CHANGE, BUT WHAT IS VALUED DOES

I have a few memories of my great-grandparents. Charles and Minnie McLaughlin lived in Buffalo and married at the turn of the last century. He was an electrician, as were almost all of the McLaughlin men who followed. I remember his stamp collection and how Great-Grandma made him keep his limburger cheese in the basement. I treasure this “running light” from his Pierce Arrow car – a light that my dad retrofitted at one point into a sconce for our kitchen. At some point I’ll continue the tradition of futzing with it and rig it with LED lights so we can hang it on our off-grid cabin up north.

I love showing it to folks and asking them what they think it is… and thus far, everyone has been surprised to learn it’s an auto part. I keep it, not because it’s cool (although it is!) but because it reminds me of the relationship I had with this man who smelled of limburger cheese.

Here’s the hard part. When I die, that light is not coming with me.

What’s even harder is that when I’m gone, I’m pretty certain this funky hunk of brass and glass will end up on eBay.

You see, my daughter has no connection to this oddity of mine because she never knew her great-great-grandfather except through my stories of him. She’s engaged in gathering her own stories and mementos, and to ask her to carry this after I’m gone devalues the reason I’ve kept it. I hold on to it because it reminds me of a treasured relationship, not because it has much intrinsic value.

Organizations have similar challenges. We have traditions that have created relationships of deep value… and when there is no one to continue the tradition, we feel grief. When I’ve spoken with folks about why they value these traditions, it is always about the herculean tasks that were accomplished in uniting for a common purpose and the relationships that were formed. The stories they tell are about the people who were engaged in the activity and the joy that comes from serving together.

When the next generation isn’t willing to pick up our treasured traditions, it’s not because those traditions didn’t have value but because some of what was valued cannot be transmitted to those who follow us. We share the same values (meaningful relationships, communal activities that create change, etc.) but that is no guarantee that we will treasure the same expressions of those values. In the end, I want the next generations to experience the relational aspects of being in community with one another and in relationship to God… but I’ve come to realize that doesn’t mean they will do the same things in order to get there. 

The hardest part of all of this is understanding that our very way of doing church may be like my great-grandfather’s running light. Oh, it can be updated and rewired for a bit, but at some point, it loses its meaning.

Jesus said he would build his church and not even the gates of hell could stand against it… but I’m starting to understand that church may be very different than the church that I’ve helped to build. And so, for now, I’ll continue to dust the lamp and remember the smell of limburger cheese and wonder in both grief and amazement at the church-yet-to-be.

Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #2

The season of Easter (it’s not just one day!) continues, as does an exploration into the world of ecclesiology – or the study of the church. I’ve chosen to use these great fifty days to explore some of the not-so-great myths and misconceptions of the current church. Last week’s misconception focused on our perceived need for young folks. Today’s misconception?

#2: THE MYTH OF SUSTAINABILITY

I’m sitting at the Session table of the Saints Preserved Church and they are discussing the budget. From the looks around the table, they’ve done this dance before. Shoulders slump, fingers doodle and no one looks anyone else in the eye. Finally, someone gathers up their courage and puts “that which shall not be discussed” on the table. They need to make changes, because their current ministry model is not sustainable.

The silence is deafening. 

The silence is defeating.

This is what ultimately happens when we worship sustainability.

When we hold on to the myth of sustainability, we ask the wrong questions. We query whether there will be enough funding (or people) to continue a task and our concerns center around existing programming and projects (with a few bright exceptions). We wonder if we can sustain that which we have come to value.

Something different happens when we switch our focus from how to sustain current ministry to questioning if this is the ministry we’re called to do in this time and place. 

We focus on sustainability because to question whether or not we’re doing the work God wants us to do is a far harder path. It’s more difficult because it demands we get our own notions and priorities out of the way and we intuit that the answer we hear may ask much of us. Our first question needs to be if God is asking us to do something, with the follow-up questions then become those of implementation.

For those of us with business acumen, this makes absolutely no sense. For anyone who has attempted to establish a budget or plan a building project this is utter nonsense. You begin with what assets you have in hand and then strategize what you can do. This way of doing our work together may seem backward, until we remember that it’s not our work that we are doing.

I’m sitting at the Session table of the Disciples of Jesus and they are discussing his upcoming ride into Jerusalem as well as his death. They argue that his plan is not sustainable. They are correct. There is nothing about the cross that is sustainable. It is foolishness. 

Let’s ask the harder questions. Let’s pick up our own cross and follow on this seemingly unsustainable journey. Let us be fools for Christ.