Recipe for Gratitude

Many congregations, including the one that I am working with right now as a consultant, care for their members by putting in the mail cards full of love and support when someone has fallen ill or is bereaved.

Some congregations have a committee that keeps a stock of stationary for this very purpose. Once a month, they gather for fellowship and write cards together.

Other churches have created a culture where the members know that any name listed on the prayer list on Sunday can be found in the church directory and that those prayers on Sunday morning reach right on into the week with a flurry of stamped envelopes sent to that dear person who needs a boost in the midst of the chaos of life.

When I was serving as a solo pastor in Washington state, it was my own practice. I asked the administrator of the church to order me special stationary with the church logo and each week, I’d conclude my week by writing five thank you notes. I’d make notes of my gratitude over the week. I’d notice on Sunday that a new acolyte had lit the candles in worship and send that child a note to say what a great job he did. I’d attend a meeting and notice the skill that a member of the church had exhibited in leading a tough conversation. I’d notice that two people stay after Bible Study to talk about something that one of them had shared. I’d send a note to both of them to thank them for reminding me (again) how much the community of Jesus Christ makes a difference in this world. I’d send notes to staff members and musicians just to say I’m so grateful for sharing in this awesome work together.

Since I left that church, I’ve had two big events in my life that have required me to keep a spreadsheet of names, addresses and gifts. I’ve restocked my stationary supply twice now. First, it was for my wedding and I’m still pretty sure that I missed some words of thanks. And at this very moment, I am surrounded by pink stationary with words of thanks in a childish font to send to dear ones that have already showered our baby with love. (She is due in October, by the way.) I have to admit that I love writing these notes. I love getting the chance to take a moment to focus my words on gratitude for the love that has been showed to me.  It’s something I think that we need more of in the world. We need more gratitude and opportunities and praise. It is for this reason that I offer you this recipe for gratitude.

This particular recipe is not focused on churches — though it certainly could be. It is instead a prayer practice I invite you to share with me.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY (2)

Don’t worry about how many cards you might send. At first, just start with one and just wait and see how it changes how you pay attention to the world around you.

 

 

 

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Recipe for Discernment

I had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Liebert last month in San Anselmo where I began my studies in spiritual direction. I had read her book The Way of Discernment way back when I was discerning whether or to leave my first call. I was testing the spirits and her words were amazingly helpful as she reminded me, in her own words, that

discernment … is the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness.

Convinced both then and now that faithfulness great or small is going to be lost on me, I also read this article from the Christian Century. The author simply says God has no secret plan but only asks any of us into the greater faithfulness of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Still, this feels lofty and overwhelming and I know it will for Central Congregational Church in Topeka tonight when I lead them through this exercise in discernment. Tonight, we’ll look at all of the data that we can find about the mission field in Topeka. There will be holes. We won’t have everything we want or need, but with what we’ve found and what I have gathered as their consultant, we’ll try to discern the greater faithfulness of this congregation.

To do so, we’ll borrow questions from Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way of Discernment. In other chapters, she encourages listening to the heart’s desire and paying attention to your body. She invites dreaming and prayer but in  the third chapter, it’s all about the data. We’ll repeat the questions she offers twice throughout the night but as I review my notes again I hope that these become familiar questions that recur in the months ahead when this church will need to make still more decisions. I don’t expect that we will come to a clear answer tonight, but I do hope that these questions will guide us in the ongoing process and it’s why I want to offer these questions to you.

Whether it is your church or your own self that is in the midst of discernment, here is a recipe that might helping you get cooking toward knowing what that greater faithfulness might be.

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It didn’t fit on my cute little design but there is one final step which is to give thanks. There may not be clear answers to where God is leading, but God is still leading. God is present in every questions and soon enough we will know what it means to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Until we’re clear, both you and I will return to this practice and ask these questions over and over again until we have a clear sense of where that greater faithfulness is.

If you are interested to learn more about my consulting practice or how I might help your church, I hope you’ll contact me. I would love to hear from you.

 

Recipe for Learning to Pray

Last week, I finally finished Carol Howard Merritt’s Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. It really shouldn’t have taken me that long and it is certainly no reflection on the book. It’s me. I had three chapters back in April and then felt this overwhelming need to never read a book about church again. Of course, that didn’t last that long and I returned to these pages again. What I love about this book is that it’s really about the kind of community we can be in the church. It’s about technology, yes, but more about how we are creating community right now which inevitably involves social media for that so-called “new generation” (of which, I guess, I am a part). It’s about the kind of community we are looking for which Carol explains in this way:

When we are surrounded by a supportive community who is helping us discern and who feels free to agree and disagree with what we are hearing from God, then our listening for God can become a humbling experience rather than an exercise that puts a divine rubber stamp on our own decisions.

It is an act of prayer. It’s something we like to believe we’ll just find ourselves in. All of the sudden just surrounded by a group of supportive people who can help with such discernment.

We need someone that will walk with us and help us see what we can not see for ourselves.  We need a partner, a friend, someone who gets it. Someone who can listen and isn’t afraid to ask questions. Someone who won’t just say it’ll all work out in the end but someone who will dare to ask the hard questions. Do you know someone like that?

This is what prayer is all about. It is a practice in staying in the conversation. It is an intention to listen. It is the hope that I might be open enough to hear what God might be saying. It’s a practice that quite honestly I have to remind myself to which I need to pay better attention — and it seems to me that it’s really better to do together.

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Learn more about Prayer Partners here

There are tons of ways to pay attention to the ways of God on your own. Some of my favorite practices include Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina and the Daily Examen but I want to offer you a little something from my kitchen because I really do believe that practicing with another person makes all of the difference in the world. It’s something I wish for my own prayer life and something I hope will bless yours.

It’s an invitation to partner in prayer. I recommend it for congregations and friends. It’s something that I hope can be used in more ways that I can even imagine because, really, no one of us can know the will of God. It’s only something we can pray to understand together. You can order your very own guide here.

Like so many recipes for ministry, the directions sound incredibly simple but it takes a little flair to make these ingredients come together. It takes the right people and extra dab of trust and a big heaping of love that the recipe might not call for. For that reason, the recipe is incredibly hard to write but here goes nothing.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY

 

 

Recipe for the Worrying Church

Sometimes it is the Lectionary that sparks an idea or sometimes it is a story that you have held close over these many years. This recipe is a little bit of both.

On Sunday, we will hear the story of Martha who is very worried and distracted. She’s rushing about and keeping busy. She’s doing all of the things and not getting an ounce of help. Understandably, she complains. To this, Jesus chides her. Or it seems he chides her for not choosing the better part like her sister Mary.

But, telling someone not to worry is just stupid and rather pointless. They will then begin to worry about the fact that they are worrying. That is, if they are really worry warts, that is what they will do. Best not to tell them their worrying is pointless but instead redirect their worry and distraction in some other more helpful way.

This brings me to the story that will begin my sermon on Sunday. It is the story of Jerry and Brian from my days of serving in Maine. In my sermon, I tell their story like this:

Brian and Jerry are bridge partners. I knew this because Jerry, who came to Bible Study every week after his wife fell ill, talked about his bridge partner all of the time. I knew Brian, of course. He also came to worship every Sunday but Brian was far more quiet than Jerry. Jerry talked a lot.

He talked about everything loudly and enthusiastically. He spoke like a teenager that was so excited that he just couldn’t get the words out fast enough. So the words all clumped together. Sometimes I had to ask him to repeat himself. Because I didn’t want to miss out on his joy. But, Jerry was getting more and more confused. He fumbled his words and thoughts jumbled too.

And do Brian, his bridge partner, gave him a worry stone, a worry stone that Jerry carried around in his pocket all of the time. He would show it to me when he couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. And then, he’s explain how Brian encourages him. Whenever Jerry starts to wander, Brian asks if he has his stone. This worked until one day when Brian asked about the stone, and Jerry said he lost it.

Jerry, like Martha, did not need a reminder that he should just stop worrying. What he needed was another worry stone. Likewise, we should not busy ourselves as leaders in the church telling those in the pews not to worry. They are already really worried. They are worried about violence and hate spurned by racism, maybe even their own racism. They are worried about the election, what that election might mean for their advocacy or even their church’s programs. Never mind the needs of their families.

I so appreciate Elisabeth Johnson’s wisdom on Working Preacher in her reminder that “we cannot seem to quell our anxious thoughts and frantic activity. It is true that much of our busyness and distraction stems from the noblest of intentions. We want to provide for our families, we want to give our children every opportunity to enrich their lives, we want to serve our neighbors, and yes, we want to serve the Lord.” There is good reason to worry about the future including the future of our churches. It comes from the noblest of intentions. We want to serve the Lord but this is so overwhelming that we can’t help but get a little lost like Jerry.

Here is the recipe.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY-2

With every good recipe, there are a few more hints. There are notes that you make as you make it your own which you’ll surely add to this card, but here are a few I’d add to my own recipe:

  • Rocks can not only be collected but also be ordered rocks like these at Oriental Trading.
  • Add a bit about worry stones to your sermon. This is optional, of course, but it may increase the connection. Be creative. Go where God invites.
  • And, as it helps, here are some words for Invitation to the Offering:

Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Jesus asks us before inviting us to consider the lilies. Like Martha, we are too worried and distracted to understand these words. Still, we give our gifts. We offer our praise even when our worries outweigh our hope. And so today, give as you receive. Take a worry stone from the plate as you give your offering. Hold onto this stone whenever you might worry and always remember to listen. 

Please share pictures of your worry stones or share with us how you are adapting this recipe for your ministry in the comments below.

Recipe for the Future Church

Every time we dare to talk about what the future of the church will be it feels like cooking. It feels like we are trying to divine a recipe — wondering if a dash of this or a pinch of that might just do the trick. In fact, most of ministry feels like that.

Together, as disciples, we are trying to figure out how to create this awesome possibility of the realm of God. Jesus never told us exactly how to do it. He didn’t leave us any kind of cookbook or even a clear set of ingredients. We know that there will be love and there will be justice, but how much? How much will create what God has dreamed could be? Of course, there are other questions that we ask when we are imagining the future of the church. It’s not just the realm of God we’re imagining. It’s whether the institution will survive. It’s the question of whether or not anyone will ever come and if the message we offer is still relevant.

These are tough questions. They are questions that can’t be answered even though we try very hard. The fact is: we just don’t have all of the information. We are not sure what compels people. We are still learning. We may have been set in our ways for a long, long time. Most churches have and many are ready to answer this question. They want to know what the future holds. They want to be given the answers. We all want the answers. But, I gotta say, I don’t have the answers. I’m a professional leader in the institutional church but I am not sure. I can say everything that I think. I can lead a whole bunch of exercises that make the churched among us feel like we’re back in youth group. And I do. I do those things. But, the questions are so persistent and the answers are so illusive that the questions start to overwhelm. It’s then that we need to read.

There is nothing like a book to challenge our hopes and dreams about the future. Ask any librarian. Books challenge us to expand our horizons and allow us to hear ourselves. That’s why I love book studies within congregations. They shift the conversation so the questions are not quite so loud as our answers. We hear what really matters.

That’s when things really get cooking. So that’s what we did at St. Peter’s United ChurBeyond_Resistance_cover_largech of Christ in Knauertown, Pennsylvania. We just finished reading John Dorhauer’s Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World. There are many books that could challenge us to imagine the future but I chose this one because of its author. John Dorhauer is the newly elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and he wrote this book about what he has learned about how the world is changing. It is very much written from his perspective. It’s a book that unpacks postmodernism which it may or not do very well. (Some in our group did not think Dorhauer went far enough.)

What I find most compelling about the book is the challenge not just to think about how one individual congregation might choose to define their future and their mission but how we might think about all of our missional resources. The future of one church cannot be separated from the future of the churches that surround it. It can’t be removed from the future of the denomination it claims. This book is a challenge to think about how we might partner. It’s not as simple as whisk or stir. It requires more of us just as reading a book like this one challenge congregations to think beyond their own resistances.

If your church is trying to imagine the future, but find yourselves tripping over the question, try this book. Here’s a simple recipe to follow.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY

It is indeed a recipe for future.