Generative Work

This past Saturday, the Leadership Team of Cayuga-Syracuse met for a “Summit”.  Like many councils (Session, the Theater Board, C-Suite gatherings) our normal meetings are usually caught up in the fiduciary – or required – parts of our work.  Bills need to be paid.  Forms need to be filed.  Stuff needs to be voted on.  That work is critical to managing the life of the organization.  Sometimes we have time to do some strategic work, but not often. 

We’re managing an organization.  It’s time-consuming work. As a Presbytery?  We’re managing.   Just managing.

Leadership is the sweet spot between doing that fiduciary work, strategic planning as well as generative work.  When we are able to do all three, we are leading.[1]  If we’re not doing all three, we’re working only in a managerial capacity.

It can be helpful to understand the three different aspects of governance in looking at the questions they answer:

Fiduciary:  What’s wrong?  (Fix the problem, balance the budget…)

Strategic:  What’s the plan?  How will we do stewardship/worship this year? 

Generative:   What’s the key question?  Why are we here, and who has God called us to be?

In my experience, church boards often relegate the generative work to the brief Bible study or prayer at the beginning of the meeting… and then it often serves as a reminder that God is in the room, and not a push to ask deeper questions.  When we don’t engage with generative questions, our organizations can lose touch with who they are.  We forget our very purpose, and instead focus on maintaining the status quo.

I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to apply this to our individual lives. I know I would live my life differently if I spent more time asking the generative questions… and lining up my priorities with the answers I receive. Why am I here? Who has God Called me to be?

Interested in sharing ideas about how to spend time in the generative zone?  Or how to reframe questions that move the conversation from fiduciary to strategic or generative and how to time that?  Me too!  I don’t have all the answers, but I’d love to talk with others about this.  Join me for a “Salon” on Thursday, February 13th at 11 a.m.

Blessings –

Karen 


[1] Chait, R. P., Ryan, W. P., & Taylor, B. E. (2011). Governance as leadership: Reframing the work of nonprofit boards. John Wiley & Sons.

Ciao! Bonjour! Wie gehts?

You don’t know this, but I can speak several languages.

According to Duolingo, I’m well on my way to fluency.  This means I can ask “Does anyone know where we are?” in Italian, Dutch and German.  I have no doubt at some point this knowledge will be helpful.

Of course, the time it actually takes to learn a language is much longer than what the various sellers of apps suggest.  Fluency comes when we move beyond vocabulary into the difficult work of grammar.  Some studies suggest that what happens as we become immersed in another language is that our brains are “rewired”.  Some of our brains take longer than others…. but you knew that.

That promise of quick and easy results finds resonance in other areas of our lives.  The promise of speed is expressed in every drive-through and EZpass booth, diet plans and get-rich-quick strategy.  We want everything yesterday, and if that isn’t deliverable, we want it now.  

Congregations fall prey to this as well.  We implement new programs, websites and music and expect immediate returns.  Once we are convinced that there needs to be change (interestingly, the one thing folks complain is often done too quickly!) whatever change scheme we implement needs to create the desired effect immediately.

The problem is that often the only thing we’ve learned is to ask the question “Does anyone know where we are?”.  We’ve not actually learned a new language or a new way of being, but instead we’ve developed the skills to allow a reasonable facsimile of the required syllables to spill off our tongues.  It’s all surface and “eye-wash”, and that required brain rewiring hasn’t taken place.

Unless…

Unless the new language we are trying to speak is love.

What if the changes we implement in our churches is not to attract new members, but to help us love new members?  What if the language we learn is one where we listen to the needs of those outside our walls and to pray for those needs and address them as we are able?

It’s not our brains that need rewiring.  It’s our hearts.  “If I speak in the tongues of humans or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

It’s not what we are doing, but rather why we are doing it.

Don’t Look Away

I have several rules of engagement when reading online news articles.  One is to not read the comments, as they will almost always lead to despair and frustration with humanity in general.  The second rule is to never respond to those comments.  Ever.

See, I know there is danger in looking at things you don’t want to see.  It can change how you perceive the world.

Christmas day I read a piece by CNN reminding those who believe in the Christian narrative that Jesus was a refugee.  I looked at the comments.  I responded.  Here is what I learned:

1)  Those rules for online engagement (see first paragraph) are smart.  

2)  Many people who comment on articles do not actually read the article.

3)  People (myself included) are often more interested in proving how right they are than in learning from others.

I also learned that there are a number of folks across this nation who attend church regularly who have never heard the story of how Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled Herod’s wrath and sought refuge in Egypt.  (As an aside, the word used here in the Greek is pheuge…. which is the root word for the English refuge/refugee).

This story is important because it tells not only of the flight to Egypt, but it also bears witness to what occurred under Herod’s rule.  It speaks of the meaningless slaughter of innocents who were killed because they were Jewish boys of a certain age in a certain region (see Matthew 2).

This story is important because it continues to occur in various iterations in our time – be it the attack on Jews celebrating the last day of Hanukkah at their Rabbi’s home, the incarceration of people of color at disproportionate rates, the rising numbers of school shootings or the number of LGBTQ suicides.  Indeed, Rachel continues to weep for her children.

All too often we end the story of God’s incarnation with the shepherds wandering back to their sheep, or the wise ones showing up at the door bearing gifts and we look away from what happens next.  We look away from the refugees, and from those persecuted and grieving as we put away the decorations for next year and make lists of goals for the next year.  We prefer our Bible stories to be quaint and not filled with violence.  We prefer our faith to not challenge us, and we prefer that our faith not be challenged.

What happens in Matthew 2 is a startling reminder that there have always been unjust rulers and violence.  Grief and pain were not solved by the birth of Jesus.  At the same time it is a reminder that God isn’t distant from what is occurred. God Incarnate is in the midst of this madness as a child who fled persecution to another country with his parents.  Here we recall that Jesus wasn’t born into a world that looks like a Hallmark movie, perfect family dinners or calm and gentle nights. Jesus was born into a world of strife.  He was born into our world.

If you’ve peered over the shoulders of shepherds this Christmas, if you’ve looked in the manger… don’t look away now.  You can wisely choose not to look at the comments, but as people of faith, do not look away from the unfolding story of the incarnation. This is God in the middle of all of it.  This is God with (all) of Us.

Objectively speaking…

We’re two candles into Advent, which means that some of congregations spent this last Sunday talking about peace.  Of the four themes of Advent, it’s arguably the one theme that is easier to talk about than to enact (go ahead, argue with me… prove my point!).

Some describe peace as the opposite of war.  Others identify peace as a lack of conflict.  Martin Luther King stated:  “True peace is not the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice”.  

“Give peace a chance.” – Lennon

“Let peace begin with me…” – Miller, Jackson-Miller

“All I want is some peace and quiet!” – Parents and Teachers.  Everywhere.

In The Anatomy of Peace[1], the authors offer that when we see others as objects (as opposed to human beings) we begin an escalation of violence.  In fact, beginning to see someone else as an object is an act of violence against that individual.  Another Martin (this one, Buber) distinguished between understanding others as either “I/Thou” or “I/It”, with the ultimate Thou being God.  

When we objectify others we categorize them (In-laws, Democrats/Republicans, Immigrants and Refugees, Israeli/Palestinian) and see them as that which occupies space and time, but do not see them as someone we are in relationship with.  We may see them in terms of their value to us as opposed to their value as intrinsic. Chances are good you’ve been on either side of this equation

Why is this important?  Because we who talk about peace cannot have peace until we bridge the gap.  

The words that have become the central themes of Advent[2] may have a questionable beginning, but they aren’t for wimps.  Words like joy, hope, love and peace challenge our way of thinking and being in a way that echoes the readings from the prophets and the promise of the Second Coming of Christ.  These are life-changing words… if they become more than just words.

In other words, Peace should be more than a nice idea on a banner.  It needs to be a life-changing way of seeing others in our families, communities, churches and world.

My challenge to you this week is to consciously choose to see everyone you meet as a person – complete with feelings, thoughts and agency.  Don’t see them as your friend, neighbor, spouse, child, waitstaff, clerk, pastor, etc. See them as THEM.  Bonus points this week if the individual you are seeing in this way is someone you’ve disagreed with.

Let peace begin with me, indeed.

Blessings –

Karen


[1] Ferrell, J., & Boyce, D. (2015). The anatomy of peace: Resolving the heart of conflict. Berrett-Koehler Publishers

[2] Loosely based on the lectionary readings, but codified by the Christian supply companies… the folks who sell bulletins, etc.  That’s right, they were a marketing tool.

Pleasin’ Season

I knew we were deep in it when I overheard a man wearily talking about the three different types of stuffing he was preparing for Thanksgiving (let the debate about stuffing vs. dressing commence!).  His plan was to make something to please his new mother-in-law as well as his father.  The final stuffing was his own preference, or as he referred to it, a “dealer’s choice”.

Many of us are hard at work pleasing folks this time of year.  From gifts to cards… even where we decide to spend our holidays can be geared around the needs and desires of another.  To please someone is to satisfy their needs or desires, sometimes at the expense of our own.

Churches get into the swing of ‘pleasing’ as well.  I recall several pastors who have said to me over the years that during this season they try to have something for everyone!  In my last church, we came up with the idea of doing a holiday hymn sing prior to the Christmas Eve service so that on that night, everyone’s favorite carol could be sung.   

There is nothing wrong with pleasing others… unless it is making you miserable.

That guy with the stuffing seemed regret his decision to make three variations of the same dish.  The woman at Target buying a ton of plastic for her children didn’t seem as jolly as that task would warrant.  There were some Christmases when this pastor barely had the energy for Christmas Eve, let alone a full hymn-sing.

Pleasing others can be exhausting.  Of course, the opposite isn’t healthy either.  Those who work to only please themselves become mean and embittered.

It is no accident that during this “Pleasin’ Season” we tell the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Dicken’s Scrooge is a model of someone who initially only pleased himself.  At the end of the story he figures it out, and his life changes not because he wants to please others, but out of an abundance of spirit.  Scrooge on Christmas morning is an image of generosity which is in stark contrast with someone who is focused on pleasing others.   The difference between generosity and pleasing folk is, well, as different as stuffing and dressing.  

As you go about Advent, and as you prepare for Christmas, are you seeking to please others?  Or are the gifts you give and the time you spend offered out of your own joy?

Wishing you generosity and joy this season!

It’s all in the family…

The other night I was visiting with church leadership and the perennial debate came up.  No, not the one about playing Christmas hymns during Advent… the one about whether the church is a business.

Is it?

Certainly, there is a business like aspect to being the church. There are often employees, budgets, buildings and boards.  We could argue that our product is one of service; offering to those in the community an opportunity to worship, much in the same way a theater offers shows.

But Jesus didn’t pray “Our Boss… who art in heaven..” and Paul referred to us as not as work colleagues, but as siblings in Christ.  If anything, the church most resembles a family – a dysfunctional, quirky, much-in-need-of-grace family.  

That doesn’t mean we should throw our budgets, policies and procedures out the window, any more than a family should forgo keeping the checkbook balanced and the chore-chart on the refrigerator.  Even the best of family systems rely on best practices.  Some even place their behavioral contract and/or mission statement on signs inside their home.  Several families in my last congregation had this sign hanging in their kitchen:  “In this house… we are real, we make mistakes, we say I’m sorry, we give second chances, we have fun, we give hugs we forgive, we do REALLY LOUD, we do family, we Love.”

How we understand the nature of the church frames our expectations of the church.  

How we understand the nature of the church frames our expectations of the people in the church.

How do you see your church?  Is it a family, a fellowship, a business?  How does that frame change how you see those next to you in the pew?  How does that shape your understanding of those outside the church walls?  

As the writer of Ephesians states:  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Let us be so.

Blessings,

Karen

Watts the question?

“What happens if this doesn’t work?”

It’s a good question.  The statement under the question is “this isn’t going to work”. It’s been used in our family (generally thought, not spoken) whenever Dad jury-rigged something that had cords.  Dad was trained as an electrical engineer, which is far different from being an electrician.  The man would test if a wire were live by licking his fingers and touching it.  Yes, he’s still with us, wonderfully, amazingly so.  Perhaps more amazing is that most of the time, what he wired DID work.

“What happens if this doesn’t work?” is a question I hear in my visits with folks around the Presbytery.  The question is generally in reference to my position, which is held together with duct-tape and approximately two years of funding.  

Of course, most congregations aren’t strangers to the question.  They ask it of themselves as they Call a new pastor, or make adjustments to an already lean budget.  

It’s a good question.

It’s the wrong question.

The question we should be asking is: “What happens if this DOES work?”

If this does work… will more lives be changed?

If this does work… will God’s kin-dom* expand?

If this does work… will more children be fed, more folks have housing, more people experience justice and mercy?

If this does work… will it mean that more people experience the transformative love of God?

In the Book of Order (part of the Presbyterian Constitution) there is a section that states:  The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life. (F.10301).  If we dwell on the “what if it doesn’t work” question, we will find ourselves paralyzed and concerned with sustainability.  Everything is dust, my friends.  

The better question leads us back to ponder whether or not our decisions help us to be a community of faith.  It’s a question that begs us to lick our fingers and touch the bare wire to see if it is live… and to see if it is life-giving.  Try it at your next meeting… you may find the results to be empowering or even shocking!

Blessings –

Karen

To toss, or not to toss..

They are packing up my stuff.  Our stuff.  Our apartment.

Don’t you wish you were me right now? No?

I’ve retreated to the local coffee shop, because our small apartment in Rockville, MD feels even smaller now.  It’s filled with boxes of dishes, books and Gerald and Mo, the movers.  Later today the truck will be loaded, and tomorrow it will arrive in Syracuse.

Gerald in particular is interested in talking about what he’s finding.  At first it felt awkward, answering questions about why I have a miniature wooden chicken coop and why there’s a picture of Bill and I dressed up in 18th c. clothes (were you pretending to be Betsy Ross or something?), but as time went on I appreciated how gently he cared for our stuff, and began to understand that this is what he does for a living.  He boxes memories.  His questions are his way of making his living… alive for him. 

It brings to mind the quote from MLK Jr., ““If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Of course, it’s possible that I’m romanticizing his work.  It may be that this is simply his way of getting through another day – hearing stories of the things he’s wrapping in paper.  For me it’s been a wee bit of ministry.  Each question by Gerald provokes a memory for me.  Each question creates another question in my mind: “why am I keeping this?”  In the end, isn’t this all just vanity and dust?

Not today.  Today, this is the stuff of memories.  

There is a line between worshipping the past and honoring it.  I think of Moses and the Israelites moving for forty years and think there must have been at least one person in that crowd that grieved the yarn stash they left behind.  Each move I make I’m challenged to go full Kondo* and lovingly leave things in places where they will spark joy for others.  Moving challenges us to determine what has value. 

It begs the question – what would happen if our churches had to move?  Certainly, the folks at Isaiah’s Table could answer this, as could those at Arlington Presbyterian (who have just moved into their new space!).  If you had to move your church, are there things you’d leave behind?  If you had your own Gerald asking questions about the oddities he found, would your stories of those items justify their need to be lovingly wrapped and put in boxes?

See you back in Syracuse.  And, if anyone needs boxes….

Blessings –

Karen

* Kondō, M. (2014). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. Ten Speed Press.

Thou Wast their Rock

As we approach the end of October, thoughts turn to whether Skittles are the better catch, or if Snickers are still king (duh!).  Turns out, the answer to that question is different based on your generation.  Apparently, I show my age even in my candy preferences.

Generational studies abound.  Painted with broad-brush strokes, and generally offering a nod to outliers, they help us understand what makes those folks who grew up in different contexts ‘tick’.  There are several excellent authors who help churches to understand what the different needs of Generations X, Y (also known as Millennials), Boomers, the Silent Generation, etc.  These studies focus on attitudes and actions, and help congregations understand who they are trying to reach.

Sociologists (and others!) study generational cohorts because out of all the predictors, age is the one that offers the most reliable predictors in terms of attitudes and behaviors.[1]  

Churches (in my experience) generally engage in generational studies because they are concerned about dwindling numbers in the pews (and in the offering plate).   We study the next generation, because we fear there will not be a next generation in our churches.

I’m not arguing that is a bad thing.  I will suggest that the motive might be an issue (let’s put in a coffee bar in the back of the church so more millenials will come… and then lead our committees is not the best motive).  Certainly, the art of translating the Gospel into the language of the people is a concept that existed before Generational Theory was postulated and it’s important.

I would argue is that the reason why the church wants to reach the next generation is the bit that needs to be sorted out first.  It’s not to increase our numbers, but rather to share the transformative love of the Christ, right?

Perhaps we need to not only look forward to who will follow us in the great parade of faith… but to look backward?  How did we get here?  Who are the saints before us, and what did they do that made their faith so persuasive?

“Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might”.

Looking back in my own life, I am thankful for the saints who went before me to taught me about Jesus in how they lived their lives.  Preachers, teachers, but also grandparents and great-grandfolk, neighbors and shopkeepers who made decisions based on their faith and sometimes even made that connection for me.  They showed me in their actions that their faith was important to them.   It wasn’t the old “in our family, we go to church on Sundays because that is what we do” sort of thing.  It was more “in our family, we go to church on Sundays because this is who we ARE”.

What if the key to reaching the next generation is how we live our lives?

What if the key to reaching the next generation is how the church lives its life?

Regardless, I’m grateful for the many, many generational cohorts that have proceeded my own (I’m officially on the cusp… but identify as Baby Boomer, if you want to know.  But you knew that when I opted for the Snickers bar, didn’t you?).  For all the Saints… who from their labors rest…

Blessings, 

Karen


[1] https://www.people-press.org/2015/09/03/the-whys-and-hows-of-generations-research/

Don’t Panic

The last few days I’ve been in Baltimore with other Mid-Council leaders.  It was a few days of all of us asking hard questions about what a Presbytery is and what it does.  Amidst keynotes, workshops and informal conversations with colleagues who are wrestling with similar challenges and opportunities I heard stories of our Church.

In the middle of that there was a brief conversation with someone who quoted from “The Hitchhiker’s’ Guide to the Galaxy”.  I’m not going to attempt to summarize the book (impossible!), but the words “Don’t Panic” are written on the cover of the Guide because it looked “insanely complicated to operate” and to “keep folks from panicking”.

Right.  

Those were the words I needed to hear.  J. Herbert Nelson preached similar words at the Mid-Council Gathering.  He reminded us that although we may not know where the path may take us, we know that Jesus knows.  

My hunch is this resonates with a number of churches in this Presbytery. My hunch is this resonates with a number of us, period.

The world is a whirlwind right now.  Between glaciers melting and the posturing of global leaders, we’ve got families in need of food and housing and issue of injustice all around us.  The harvest is great; the workers are few.  More than of few of us (individuals, churches) are feeling compassion fatigue.  It’s nothing specific… it’s a conglomeration of everything that makes life seem inherently insanely complicated to operate.  It’s all too easy to panic.

Now, the words “Don’t Panic” isn’t exactly written on the cover of our Holy text… and within the covers are all sorts of stories of faithful folk who did just that (panic!).  But the words the Resurrected Jesus speaks to the disciples in that Upper Room echo the words Douglas Adams penned.

Peace be with you. Don’t panic.

There is much work ahead for all of us – Cay-Syr Presbies and all the rest.  We know, however, that our God remains in the middle of it.  What is our only comfort in life and in death?  That we are not our own.  That we belong, body and soul, both in life and in death to our faithful savior.