Prayers for Abundant Life

Though it has been a month since I’ve been in the pulpit, and I’ve even said no to a possibility for ministry, I will be preaching again this Sunday at Gower Christian Church. It is their church that is the image above this post.

I had the opportunity to serve a Disciples of Christ congregation while I was in seminary but it’s been ten years and I’m not really sure that I remember it all that well. There is some holy trepidation in my worship planning this week as these are people of the table. These are people that gather every week at the table to share in gifts of God for the people of God. And well, I’m just not in that habit. I’m a bit more informal when I lead worship alone and I’m not used to sharing in this holy work with elders (though I’ve done it before).

Below are some prayers that will lead these good people and I through worship on Sunday inspired by the readings from the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary. They are prayers I’ve written. Some of which I’ll even offer with my own voice. Others will be voiced by others. I am not yet sure where my sermon will go and if it will even hint toward All Saints Day or if I’ll focus on the stressors we are all feeling leading up to election day. But, that last line in the Gospel sent me back to the words in Joel 2 so you’ll surely hear those words in the prayers I’ve written for this day.

Call to Worship (Responsive)

Inspired by Job 19:23-27a and Luke 20:27-38

One: O that we might live, and live abundantly!
That life everlasting might be more than words
but the eternal hope we keep together.
All: O that we might live in hope!
One: O that we might live, and live abundantly!
That our worship and praise might inspire our sons and our daughters to prophesy, for our elders to dream dreams, and our young to see new visions.
All: May that hope be resurrected in us again this day.

Prayer of Invocation

Come Holy Spirit, come into this place.
Come into every heart and every open hand
for in this place we know that our Redeemer lives.
We know it and we believe it but our words do not always show it.
We open our mouths only to reveal more of our doubts than our hopes.
So, come, Holy Spirit, come.
Come and mediate between the words that we say.
Move through every pause and whisper through every silence
so that our eyes can behold your hope, rather than our own.
So that we can see your grace and hope
standing so close beside us that it becomes our own.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come.
Come into this place today, we pray.

Invitation to the Table (Responsive)

One: You have heard it said how some Sadduccees came to him saying that there was no resurrection. They had questions but no answers. You may too have heard it said that those with faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains, but you had more questions than faith.
All:  Christ invites to come to this table whether we doubt or believe. Christ invites us again, as he has so many times before, to partake of the questions that we have not yet answered.
One: Christ invites us to find life and find it abundantly in the ordinary gifts offered on this plate and in this cup. Might we find here, again or perhaps for the very first time, that our Redeemer lives. There is new life to be shared and hope to be restored.
All: O that we might live, and live abundantly!

I missed last week. Maybe you noticed. Oops! Still, check back for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday and don’t forget to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below!

Prayer for the Election Season

Like so many others, I watched the Presidential Debate on Sunday night. I gritted my teeth and joined others in lamentation and dismay on Twitter. When the debate was nearly over, one of my friends confessed via group text that she’d drunk way more wine that she intended while watching these two presidential hopefuls on her computer screen.

There were words of affirmation and support from the other pastors in that text. Each of them sharing in the unique struggle of being a pastor in the middle of this particular election. Maybe it’s always this bad. Maybe this year is especially horrible. Maybe it always feels this charged. I’m never quite sure but unlike my sisters in Christ, I am not pastoring right now. I am without a church to lead for this season.

I am not spending as much time worrying about how to preach on Sunday or how to heal the divides between those that don’t share the same political perspective. (Instead, I’m hiding out on a military post and wondering what it means to be a military spouse in this middle of all of this election nonsense.) My thoughts aren’t so much on how to lead the church through this quagmire but how to orient my own heart and mind. Perhaps these are not different things after all.

A colleague directed me to read the Epistle Lesson for this coming Sunday. She read it preparing for worship and felt it to be the very words that she needed to hear from God. I have to say that I concur. I’ve adapted the words from the New Revised Standard Version to read more like a prayer than an exhortation from Paul (or someone who wants to be Paul). I intend to use it in my personal devotion but it might be used each week in worship leading up to Election Day in place of a prayer of confession.

I confess that I’m writing this prayer just after finishing reading this week’s chapter in Drew G.I. Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen as part of the RevGal’s Anti-Racism Project. So the language might sound a bit like the chapter I’ve just read. Even as a personal prayer, the language is plural. It’s not just my personal transformation that matters, but how I am transformed to love and share in this life with others.

Prayer Before Election Day 2016
Inspired by 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

O God, help us to remember how you called us out
and gathered us from the margins to be your church.
Every good word you have spoken across the generations
reminds us of this radical reorientation you made in our world.
Teach us again. Correct us and train us in your righteousness,
so that every one of us might be so well equipped in your love that we do not seek to dominate and conquer but to be changed by your message for this world.
Help us to continue.

Remind us that to fight the good fight and carry out our ministry fully
is to remember that good news can be found in hardship
and that there is salvation that can change our whole world in Jesus Christ.
Let us not die, but let us live in your hope, O God.
Help us to continue.

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine,
but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves
teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away
from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
Let it be Christ who judges, not us.
Convince us, rebuke us, and encourage us,
with the utmost patience in your teaching.
Help us to continue.

Do not let us forget what we have learned and firmly believed in every good word you have spoken. Let it be that radical change toward the kingdom that helps us to decide how what we will preach and what we will teach. Help us to continue in the radical way of your hope and your love, especially in this unfavorable time, O God.

Check back for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday and don’t forget to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below!

Prayer for National Coming Out Day

I have failed the past few weeks. Did you notice? There were no new ingredients for worship the past two weeks. Or was it three? I’m not sure I have an excuse. I could give you one but I’m not sure that any explanation will make a difference.

Today I am in the middle of driving across the country to the middle of America so it may seem weird that I’ve decided to post something. But, there is so much that feels broken. There is so much hate speech and so much anger. I don’t feel like my words can respond to any of it but I want to try. I want to do something to speak that love is greater than hate. Or Trump. Take your pick.

Tuesday October 11 is National Coming Out Day. It is a day to embrace who we are without hiding. It’s a day to celebrate who God created us to be, except it’s not a day for me. I may be an ally but I also come from a tradition where we love n inclusivity so much that we don’t ever want to leave anyone out. As the Black Lives Movement continues to teach us, the generalizations are killing people. So let’s get specific. Let’s talk about the particular challenges of being gay even after marriage equality has become the law of the land. Let’s celebrate that it’s still a brave act to come out and let us be so bold as to give a space for those that need to hear that they are fearfully and wonderfully made by our God.

There are some wonderful prayer resources out there to celebrate this particular day within the context of worship. There is this whole liturgy from the United Church of Christ. It will, however, take you off lectionary but the prayers could surely be tweaked. in years past, I have loved this prayer from Coming Out Young and Faithful. I offer it to you giving full credit to the authors.

Prayer for Coming Out

Creator God,
I am learning things all the time.
It is a gift to be young and to get to know you
and our world, your beautiful creation.
I am getting to know myself, and I’m discovering that sometimes I am
attracted to members of my gender – other girls (or boys).
Sometimes the things I feel are strong and deep.
Sometimes it even feels like love.
Sometimes I feel scared of these feelings.
Sometimes I feel wonderful about them.
I know that I am your creation,
and you have given me a wonderful gift in my orientation.
I pray for your supporting presence
as I become more comfortable with my feelings.
I pray for your guidance,
That I may know when it is the right time for me
to let other people know about this part of me.
I pray for your supporting presence
if I should be rejected, knowing that you,
God who created me,
will not reject me,
that you will affirm me
as part of your beautiful creation.
In you I trust.
Amen.

Check back for more Ingredients for Worship next Tuesday (God willing) and don’t forget to share what you’ve cooked up in the comments below! I’d love to heard how you’re celebrating this day.

The No Plan Plan

I don’t get to my home church very much. In fact, I’vbe-the-churche only been for worship twice in the past year. Once was my first official visit. The next Sunday I joined as a member. Since then, I’ve been busy on Sunday mornings preaching in another congregation.

Still, I love my home church. I’m proud to be a member of this tribe that is seeking to be the church in so many bold ways.

I want to help. I want to be connected even if I can’t get to worship on Sunday. So, when it was requested that members sign up to write for the newsletter while our pastor in on a much-needed vacation, I said yes.

Yes, I will write about how I’m learning about faith right now. Yes, I’ll say something about this crazy move in which I find myself. Yes, I’ll write about The No Plan Plan. It goes like this:

I am surrounded by boxes. Two months ago, everything I own was packed up by strangers, loaded upon a truck and transported to our next home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Just three months ago, my beloved and I celebrated our marriage. It was wonderful. It was everything you could ever hope that such a blessing could be but after that epic celebration, we have been surrounded by boxes and bags.

Read the whole reflection on Old First Reformed UCC’s website.

How We Write Clergy

I am a character in a book.

I learned of this news from a Facebook message. A member of the community had written a book and he wanted to know if it was alright to name the church in the book. That wasn’t my call anymore. I was no longer the pastor there, except that I was in the book.

While I was still in ministry in that place, I had had coffee with Ned Hayes many times. He was someone who came to worship on occasion. It was always clear to me that he was seeking something. He was incredibly well read. He’d read all kinds of theology and had even gone to seminary but there was still something he was looking for. I did not know in the middle of writing another book and that I would end up being a character. Of course, I said yes. By all means, print it. Publish it! I can’t wait to read how those cups of coffee and mornings in church translate into a character like Pastor Ilsa.

See what he did there? He changed the name by one letter. No doubt he was trying to avoid the connection to Disney’s Frozen that I cannot quite escape. Smart move. I borrowed a copy from my goddaughter and started to read at the pool.

14045951_1068662506550170_8991399356609680619_n.jpgEagle Tree is the story of a boy growing up in Olympia. He is a boy that is somewhere on the spectrum of autism and it is his voice that leads the reader through the journey of saving this tree in the LBA Woods. When I lived in Olympia, there were signs all over town to save this particular park. This is the fictional story of how that park is saved from the hands of developers by this boy named March who sometimes goes to church at the United Churches of Olympia. Church is a confusing place for March. It is a place where the pastor tells strange stories that are true, but not factually true.

This is how Pastor Ilsa is introduced. His mother drags him to church and March offers this narration:

Ilsa says she likes to talk about God because she cannot entirely understand God, but that is not how I feel at all. I need to understand things all the way down to the root.

Though Ned denies it, this could have been a note he jotted down while we were having coffee. This is totally something I would say. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I did say something exactly like this. There are, however, other things that don’t line up about me. It is fiction, after all. Pastor Ilsa is married to a professor at the local college by the name of Pierre. His name sounds equally exotic to my husband’s name but their careers are totally different. Ilsa was also a botanist before she came into ministry. There was some kind of accident that shifted her focus. Again, this is not me but makes for a good character. Most surprising to me: Ilsa is old. He husband has grey in his beard. This is not a young pastor. For this, I am admittedly sad. Clergy are so often imagined to be sage and wise because of their many years. It somehow makes them approachable.

I’m not complaining. Not exactly. I’m just interested in how we write clergy. I’m interested in how clergy are portrayed in the media. Consider AMC’s Preacher for example. This is nothing like the pastor that Ned Hayes writes.

Ned portrays someone far less of a bad ass, though she is a police chaplain which I thought was pretty cool. Maybe because Ned isn’t worried about ratings or sensationalism that television seems to require or maybe because he sees that there is something that good that does happen in church. And he thinks that clergy are a part of that. The pastor he writes is approachable and caring. She has an incredible bond with March. She is able to get on his level and welcome him as a full child of God. I can only pray that I do this every day in my ministry, then and now. It is really what I hope not just for clergy but for all Christians.

Ultimately, this is not a book about Christians or even clergy. It’s a book about connections. It’s a book about how we relate to each other and how we relate to the world around us. No matter what separates and divides, we can come together to do good. We can change the world around us. We can make a difference. I am not in the least bit surprised that this is Ned’s heart or that he still sometimes worships with this brave group of people in Olympia that shares the same hope.

The Only Hope for America

Most everything I know about democracy I’ve learned in church. It is in my particular tradition of being church that I’ve had the chance to practice all of the values and ideals that democracy claims.

Mine is the tradition that birthed democracy. They were not perfect people but they came seeking freedom. They came looking for something different than what they had known and so they imagined this new way of governance that would Abraham Lincoln would later declare to be for the people and by the people. Mine is the United Church of Christ, a denomination made up of four different traditions that dared to come together in the certain belief that they could be better together. Imagine that in our current political landscape because I surely cannot. Still, I cannot help but view every bit of coverage of the political process through my experience in church. Take yesterday’s headline in the Washington Post: GOP reaches ‘new level of panic’ over Trump’s candidacy.

It was only two weeks ago that the Republican National Convention wrapped up in Cleveland, Ohio with Donald Trump became the official nominee for the party. Granted, this particular presidential candidate has said some really egregious things since he received that nomination but I can’t help but view this from the perspective of what would happen in church.

Because it does happen in church. It happens in all kinds of churches, not just those in my tradition. So, I’m curious how this panic would play out in a local congregation where a pastor has just been called. (Let’s also keep in mind that pastors and presidents are not at all the same thing. Nor should they be. Good heavens.) I’m trying to imagine what would happen if that pastor was to make the same kind of remarks that Donald Trump has made, if that pastor was to disregard the tradition and teachings of the church and how the people in that church might respond.

Would it only create a stink if the members of that church didn’t agree with what the pastor was doing and saying? Would they question his integrity? Would they wonder if they had made a mistake? What would happen if the powers that be within the denomination would override their decision to call that person to be their pastor and teacher? Would it create a panic within the members of that church? Or would it only raise the temperature of those in the judicatory?

That’s what I wonder most about this particular headline. Is this a question of who knows best? Because this is a question I carry into my ministry every single day. There is a fair amount of distrust among the congregations I have served. They are ever suspicious of the role of the judicatory. In the United Church of Christ, the association, the conference, general synod and the national setting but in your tradition it might include presbyteries, synods and districts. They don’t see the other expressions of the church (that’s what we call these things in the United Church of Christ) as partners in their ministry. And they should be partners. That’s the whole idea. They don’t trust the other expressions and are far more comfortable seeing themselves in that one little congregation all on their own. That may very well be all fine and good until there is a problem with their pastor, which seems to be the issue that the GOP is having with Donald Trump.

They see Trump as a problem. They see the harm that he may cause and they want to try to help. But, how do you do that? In our understanding of governance for the people and by the people, both inside and outside of the church, how do you decide that the people are wrong? After all, the people voted for him. All of those delegates in Cleveland got behind him. All that I can see is broken trust. The GOP doesn’t even need to act. It has already doubted the people. Trust is already broken. So, then, what can be done to rebuild that trust?

I don’t think this is just a question for the GOP, but it’s a question for all of us who dare to believe that we share some common ground. How do we hold that ground together even when we disagree? What happens when someone – maybe even someone well-intentioned  – takes those values and skews them? How do we go back to the core of who we are?

How do we move forward together?

We must move forward together. We must.

I confess to you that I am not a Republican but I love a whole lot of them. They are in the churches I serve. I am their pastor and I always will be. I don’t support Trump but there are those in my church that I do. We don’t agree. And that’s OK. Church has taught me the value of building consensus. It’s taught me the wisdom of taking time to learn and grow together and Jesus reminds me every week in the gospels we share in worship that we really are better together. It is not a question of who know best. I don’t think it can be. It has to be about the kind of trust that we can build with each other so that we can move forward. Together, we must move forward. It is our only hope.

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.

Talking in Church

After my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she dragged us to church. It felt like she was pulling us by our ears with one hand and spitting in the palm of the other to smooth out my brother’s hair. That’s not how it happened, of course. It is simply what remains from those first few years of sitting uncomfortably in a pew.

We didn’t do much sitting in those pews. In the mere 15 minutes we were in the worship service, before we departed for Sunday School, we would writhe and squirm. I would draw all over whatever was in the pew racks with the little pencils that seemed to be just my size. But, I was not allowed to sit on the floor and use the pew as a desk. My mother’s index finger chastised me for it. I was to sit still and be quiet.

There was no talking in church.

In many congregations, this is still true. There may be no sign on the sanctuary wall to dictate this rule but it is a value deeply held by those who were also chastised by their mother’s stern index finger. And so, the structure of the worship service does not engage the worshipper in a conversation but invites them to sit in a quiet place and listen. We don’t touch each other. We don’t know anything about each other’s lives. We listen to the preacher.

I get to be that person. I get to speak because I am entrusted to preach.

All other sounds are silenced unless someone’s phone happens to ring and then there is the sudden jolt of a reminder that there is such a thing as relationship.

But, otherwise, you are alone in that pew. You do not engage. You listen.

The architecture in most sanctuaries are designed for this. There is no soft reminder in that pew that to love your neighbor is to love yourself. There is only the assertion that you should face front and pay attention. If you do try to talk to the person next to you, it strains the neck. The wooden board arrests your back in one position so that you can only yield to its rigidity and face forward. You must not speak but listen.

Fingers are wagged at you if you dare to interrupt the silence. And it’s not your mother, this time. The sad part of this is: you came looking for community. It’s the primary reason that people come to church and it’s the reason that most people stay. The tenets of the faith are not as important as the connection that we find because most of us are lonely. We live alone. We live faraway from family and sometimes even friends. No one hugs us. No one listens to what happened in our day. We come to church looking for a place where we can be loved. We come to share our lives out loud and all the church does is call for quiet.

My mom shushed because that’s how she was raised. She was mimicking her parents and probably didn’t want to appear to have raised wretched children. There’s some pride there but my mom also came back to church because she was looking for something. She was looking for an answer to why terrible things happen. She wanted to know why she was going to die and she wanted to know that her kids were going to be OK. (My insistence that the pew was a really good desk did not ease that.) The minister talked to her a lot. He was at our house often but I don’t remember a single person talking to her in the pews.

I wonder what would have happened if someone had. I wonder if she would have felt less lonely about this impending doom. I wonder what would have happened if the worship was structured in such a way where she got the chance to speak. She might not choose to say anything. That’s fine. But, what if she risked it? What if she voiced her question aloud in the prayers? Or what if the person in the pew beside her asked a similar question when they were talking about the Bible passage for that day? What would have changed? What would have been different?

Those are my questions. That’s what I wonder every week as worship is about to begin. I know that every person in that sanctuary came to church with something on their heart. It could be a joy. It could be a sorrow or an impossible question. I may never know what those things are but they came to church because they needed someone to hear it. God will but they didn’t need to come to church for that thing to be heard. They came to church because they wanted to be less alone. I won’t be the one to shush them. I may not even be the with an answers but I’ll give them a space to speak.

I’ll always encourage talking in church.

 

Interview Questions for the Searching Pastor

Spring is in the air and change seems to be sprouting in every which direction. Colleagues are quietly talking about their discernment. Questions are being asked about how to leave a ministry well and I admit I don’t have solid answers. I have left two churches and I’m still not sure I have done it well. I only know that I miss them both. And now, I’m preparing to leave another.

My last Sunday isn’t until October but with only four months of our shared work ahead, I’m starting to think about what’s next. I’m looking at listings. I’m beginning to network as I wonder if there might be an interim opportunity in the next year. At the same time, my colleagues seem to be hungry for questions to ask of search committees. It is a question that keeps appearing and it’s one that I think I can answer. I have, after all, interviewed a lot. I haven’t always gotten the gig but I have been told I ask good questions.

Last year, I wrote another post with interview tips for pastors which includes some techie pointers and a few questions to inspire your conversation with the search committee. This is all about the questions. These questions are all geared toward pastors who are trying to learn as much as they can about the congregations with whom they’re interviewing.

Let’s start with mood. Every congregation has a particular mood. Some are hopeful. Some are despairing. Some think the sky is falling. Some think that there is endless possibility. Still others are just confused. They want it all, but then again, so do I. It should be possible to read the mood of the church in the paperwork they provide about themselves. But, even if it is not apparent, these mood questions are my favorite for the simple fact that they reveal the church’s heart.

  • What gives you joy?
  • What do you most want to learn as a congregation?
  • As Barbara Brown Taylor asks, what is saving your life right now?
  • How is your church living in Easter/Pentecost/Christmas/Epiphany right now? (This will only work with the liturgically minded.)
  • How do you experience the peace that surpasses all understanding together?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • As I just heard Krista Tippet ask: As you look around at the world now, what makes you despair, and what gives you hope?

The temptation in answering these questions is to answer for yourself rather than for the congregation. Try to nudge toward the congregation’s perspective rather than the personal. When I ask these questions, I request hearing an answer from everyone on the committee. I don’t want to hear their rote answers or even from the one guy that is most comfortable speaking. I want to hear them talk to each other. I want to hear their deepest truth. Bizarrely, this works best on the phone. When I interviewed for my current interim, I asked the joy question while on the phone. I couldn’t see their faces but they concluded by saying, “I wish you were here to see what just happened. I don’t think we just got closer.” Alleluia!

The next set of questions are adapted from the United Church of Christ’s A Pilgrimage Through Transitions and New Beginnings. The questions in the packet of materials (it was actually once a binder) provided by my denomination are all geared toward churches. I’ve tweaked them for pastors to ask of churches. You can find the original list found in both Resource 11B and Resource 11C here.

  • What is most exciting about your church’s mission? (This assumes that the church actually has a clearly stated mission. If not, it’s worth asking what they think their mission might be. I’d let everyone answer that too.)
  • What does worship do for your community? What should it do?
  • How do you take care of each other? Who is responsible and how is this labor of love  shared by your community?
  • What is your understanding of “good news”?
  • What motivates you to invite your friends to church? Why do you think they should want to join your fellowship? What are you doing to help with that outreach?
  • The role of the pastor is changing fast. How would you define that role?
  • What experiences have contributed most to your growth as a church in the past five years? Have you read books together? Do you go on retreats? Is your adult Sunday School picking some awesome topics?
  • How would you describe God? What is your favorite image of God in scripture?
  • What is your church’s weakness? What is the most difficult thing for you to do together?

Each church interviews a little bit differently in my tradition. The norm was once two phone interviews and then an in-person interview. That seems to be changing. Still, I tend to save all of my big questions for the in-person interview. To me, that’s when it’s really serious. In the phone interview, I typically only ask two or three questions but after I hang up the phone, I write down all of the questions I still have.lauras-logo

If you are interviewing right now, or attend a church that is going through a search process, I really hope that you’ll complete this survey compiled by my friend Laura Stephens-Reed. Laura has wisely identified that there are some huge challenges that have arisen in churches that have all started with a bad search. (I am serving one of those churches as an interim right now.) Laura also happens to be the one that convinced me that I could do interim ministry. I am eternally grateful as I love it so I hope that you’ll add your thought to this survey. You can read more about the project here.

Before you go, please share your best questions. What are your favorite interview questions?