There’s No Place Like Home

Since I moved to Kansas, I find myself clicking my heels more and more.  I have no ruby red slippers but the mantra is the same, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.”

The problem is that I have no idea where home is.

This was made clear to me again when I flew back east for a dear friend’s wedding. She and I have been friends since the first grade and so i found myself surrounded by people who have met me or at least heard about me. Some of these good people even knew that I’d already moved several times in my adult life, but most of them had lost track of me after I moved cross the country from Maine to Washington. They hadn’t heard that I’d moved again and seemed to find it a bit shocking. Every time the topic came up, with each new person, it seemed incomprehensible that I’d moved twice since the last time they last knew my whereabouts. Thus, the same confused exclamation came I shared our new location. Every single time, their pitch raised, “Kansas?!? What brings you to Kansas?”

My response was equally repetitive. “My husband is in the military and it is in Kansas that he is required to be right now.”

I am embarrassingly ignorant of military things. This isn’t a new problem, but one that continues to fester in our relationship. So much so that if my husband has heard this response, which he did several time last night, or another like it, he grimaces and elaborates that he is in the midst of his schooling in the Command and General Staff College. After he finishes that, he continues to explain, we will move again. That is when I grimace.

Before I met my husband, I had looked forward to multiple moves across the country. I liked the idea of learning about how people do church in different parts of the globe. I really liked that idea and subscribed to the concept of a shorter pastorate. I couldn’t imagine being a pastor of a congregation for fifteen, twenty or thirty years. It made sense to me if there were kids in the equation, but at that point I wasn’t considering motherhood. I had no interest in being a single parent and was far more interested in what I might do for God. I didn’t want to be bored for God, but wanted to create beautiful things in amazing places with people just as hope-filled.

That hope had already taken me to two places. I’d gone to Maine where I’d stayed longer than I ever thought I would and we did some good things together, but I got bored. I got really bored and so I looked for what was next and found the good people in Washington. When I moved there, I told the search committee I was looking for two things: love and a place to call home. I found one, but not the other.

On our wedding day, my friend Melanie talked about the five mile stretch of road that leads to the farm that was once and is now her home. Just before she led us in saying our vows, she talked about this stretch of road that makes it heart beat faster and always brings a smile to her face before she advised us to

“be home for one another. Be that place, of unconditional acceptance and love for each other.  Be that place that makes your heart beats quicken.  Be that place where you always see something new and beautiful. No matter what season.  Be that place that in the midst of difficulties you can be at rest. Home.  Be each other’s homes.”

I don’t know if other people think as much about the homily offered on their wedding day as I do, but I think about these words all of the time. I think about them every time I step into the crappy housing the military gave us. I click my heels and remind myself that this shelter is not my home, but the place I find in my husband’s arms is home.

We are each other’s homes, I guess. I like that idea. I like it a lot but I have a few questions for I cannot imagine this without a picture in my head. I am a visual learner, after all. So I need to see it but the only image that I can craft is like bad clip art from a church newsletter in the early 90s. I can see the open arms but I do not want to run toward them. I want to run away for the image is so repulsive. Repulsive is a strong word. I apparently have strong feelings about clip art, and so it must be something else.

Is this the same problem that the wandering Israelites felt in all of those many years of exile? They were told their was a new home for them. It was to be a Promised Land, but they could not imagine it. They did not know what to expect or who to expect. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend. Is that what home is supposed to be? Is the sheer idea of it meant to overwhelm and confound?

In her recent book Roots and Sky, Christie Purifoy wonders “if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed.” She admits that we wander. It’s what  humans do but she doesn’t find much confusion in that fact. Simply put, to her, “home is the ground we measure with our own two feet. And home is the place that measures us. Home is the place that names us and the place we, in turn, name. It feeds us, body and soul, and if we are living well, we feed it too. Home is the place we cultivate with our love.”

Christie seems like someone who can confidently say, along with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home. There no place like home.” Both Christie and my friend Melanie have ended up on farms. They’ve both awoken from the nightmare of aimless wandering from place to place only to find that their place was always supposed to be on this patch of land they get to cultivate with love. I, on other hand, am still clicking my heels and wondering about home. One thing I know for sure: there is no place like it.

If you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year. You just read it. I had some internet issues so it’s late but I did finish it before the second week began. I really am trying to set by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. These essays are supposed to dig deep and so you might not find my weekly essays here but you will find them on Medium. It’s a double experiment for me.

The Rise of the Consultant 

I can’t remember when I first heard the term.

I do remember how I felt about it when I heard that there was such a thing as a church consultant. It was not pleasant.

I was of the impression that it wasn’t anything that a pastor couldn’t do and I was a pastor.  I knew the people in the congregation. I knew their hopes and dreams and was doing my best to understand what ministry we might do together. I wasn’t excited about anyone Lee helping with that discernment. It seemed like a waste of time and an even bigger waste of money to hire someone to help us ask the questions we already knew we needed to answer as a church. No, when I first heard the term, I was anything but excited about the idea of a church consultant.

I didn’t like it but it seemed like they were everywhere. Church consultants were popping up all over the place. They were the hot new thing but I couldn’t quite escape the fact that these were people who had left full-time ministry. That’s how it seemed to me. These were people that couldn’t hack it as a pastor, but they still thought they had something to offer the church. So they became a consultant. At that time, they were all older than me. They’d been in ministry a long time. They had a resume that I couldn’t fathom and most of them were connected to the now extinct Alban Institute as was true for the church consultant that I first considered hiring.

I had a fabulous conversation with this gentleman over email and then on the phone about how we might lead the church I was serving to understand their vision. The church knew that this was a question that they must answer. They were anticipating the retirement of the Senior Pastor and were wondering what their ministry might look like after he left. Ever eager to help, I rose to the challenge and did what I could to help them on this quest. It didn’t work. They didn’t choose to hire him and it became clear that I had stepped into something I hadn’t intended. So it was time and time again as an Associate Pastor.

That was then, but now, there are consultants my age. They have resumes like mine and they are immersed in the wondering what the future of the church might be. I’ve learned a thing or two since the first time I heard the term church consultant for the first time. Most importantly, they don’t have all of the answers. They have ideas and questions. They’ve seen some things work in other places but they don’t know what God is doing in this place. None of us do. Church consultants are curious. They are seekers. They are looking to find God in the midst of numbers and figures. They are trying to ask questions that they can’t answer and waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up and make herself known.

They have some skills too. They’ve studied change and tried to understand how much people hate it and what we can do to manage the inevitability of change still finding its way into our laps. And even though consultancy is an idea taken from the business world, the ones in the church are really people of prayer. They are open to transformation. It’s what they hope to find every time they sign a contract with a local church.

I never expected that I would be counted among this group of people. From the very beginning, when I first wandered into the halls of seminary, I have been called to the local church. I saw myself as a pastor. I still feel that I am a pastor but when I got married to a man in the military, my ministry changed. I got excited about interim ministry and eager to help congregations transition into a vibrant future with God. I got some training and got to use my new skills. And then, we moved… again. I interviewed with another church and they are delightful but I didn’t think I could give them my all. I’m newly married. We are only here for a short time. I just didn’t think I could do both well. So, I turned down the opportunity to be their interim pastor.

It was then that the conference minister in the region I find myself asked if I might consider being a consultant. The pastor that they hired is good and talented but she is not trained. She doesn’t have these skills yet and the church needs this work. They need to ask big holy questions about their future. They are not just looking to call a new pastor. They are looking to sell their building and they have to discern what their ministry might be in that unknown future. There was dead air on the other end of the phone when the conference minister said I could do such a thing. I could be a consultant. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure I could do it. She told me to think about it. “Pray about it,” she said “and if it feels right, write up a proposal.”

Tonight will be the first time that I attempt this new thing. I’ll lead the first session in a series of workshops. I’ll meet with the pastor and share in big questions about what God is doing in this group of people. I’ll be one of those church consultants asking questions and looking for the Holy Spirit.

The Imperfect Pastor

There are plenty of days that I don’t feel like I’m a good pastor. I have never felt perfect. I can’t imagine ever feeling that confident in this holy and sacred work. Most of the time I feel like I’m not quite living up to this calling.

I don’t even want to get into that. I don’t want to talk about the ways that clergy are held to a high standard of morality and faith which makes it hard to be a person. I don’t want to talk about any of that because what is really on my mind is one particular pastor by the name of Jack Miller.

DSC_2625_D3Full-LJack was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco twenty something years ago. He
was, in fact, the pastor of that congregation up until 2002. And he’s the subject of the chapter I’m working on right now. For, you see, Jack was my mom’s pastor.

When she learned she was dying, when she was trying to come to grips with what that would mean, someone told her to talk to Jack. Someone advised that he might be a good listening ear. And he was. She would sit there in the balcony of that church next to Jack and talk to him about everything she hoped and feared. She dragged us to church on Sunday. She taught me that the church was a place where we could ask hard questions. And that was because of Jack. When she needed it most, Jack made a space for her. He listened. He prayed. He sat at her bedside. As she was dying, he was always at our house.

This was weird to me. My grandparents had been church goers, but my parents were not. They didn’t care much for that kind of thing until my mom was dying. When she knew she was dying, everything changed and Jack seemed to be always there. (He wasn’t, of course, but it seemed that way to seven year old me.) Jack made a big impact on me. He was a huge help to my mom but Jack was not perfect.

Many years later, the news broke that Jack was being charged with sexual misconduct. It was in The New York Times. I ended up Googling him yesterday. I realized that there were still questions I wanted to ask him. I wondered if maybe I could find him. But, all I found was news story after news story about this scandal. It is revealed how he struggled with his sexuality which may or may not have led to his drinking. The members of that church knew that he wasn’t perfect. They knew that he had some demons. I don’t know if they made the same space for those struggles as Jack made for my mom, but eventually, he was removed. He was forced to resign. He was removed of his ministerial standing. He is, now, what we would call a bad guy.

What I’m writing right now in the book I’m writing has nothing to do with this later history. It pains me that Jack’s ministry ended this way. Though, I am not totally sure that’s true. I seem to recall that he continued to pastor a home church made up of former members of that church he was forced to leave. I wish he hadn’t made that move but he is human, just as I am human. He was called into this work and he loved it. That was obvious to me even as a little girl. So, I want to write about that man that presided over my mother’s funeral and sat at her bedside.

I want to write about the man who jumped at the chance to take a ten-year old girl out to pizza to talk about the mom she missed. He ate a lot of pizza together. We drank too many sodas and Jack was who he had always been to me. He was someone who would listen. He was a pastor. He guided me back toward the light. He helped me to claim resurrection even if he couldn’t find that same hope for himself. The fact is: I never knew his struggles. Just as the people I pastor don’t know what’s going on in my inner life, I have no idea what was going on inside Jack. It pains me to read these news stories and I don’t want to write about it.

I don’t want to tell that part of the story, but I don’t want to edit out his name. But, that’s what I’m doing. I’m struggling to write this part. I’m trying to describe him without naming him because I don’t want him to be reduced to a scandal. Aren’t we all better than our worst moments? Isn’t there goodness to be found in everything? Is there no hope of redemption? Isn’t there? He is not a character. Jack is a real person who might one day read these words about him. He is as flawed and human as I am. He was not perfect. I doubt that he is now but I want to write his story without having to explain this scandal because it’s not part of my story. It’s not the Jack I knew. Still, the blinking cursor wins

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?

 

Lessons from the Past

After worship was over, in the middle of the Annual Meeting of this tiny church I’m serving as interim pastor, we shared in the work of memory. Earlier that week, I had taped a blue line upon the wall of the church hall with my trusty painter’s tape and chartered those significant events that I could cull from the archives and records.

There was a fire many, many years ago so that some records have been turned into ash but there are gaps in the present too. There are dates overlap from annual reports that don’t seem to have all of the information that we might hope to find but I was able to find when the women’s group started and when most recent bylaws were approved.

Inspired by Roy Oswald’s Discerning Your Congregation’s Future, we shared in what he calls an Evening of Historical Reflection but it was daytime for us and we attempted to do too much too fast. I knew that there was a risk of this. I grimaced a bit inside when the Consistory offered that this would be the best time because there would be so many more people present and engaged, but it was too much. It really should have happened on its own.

This church has had a particularly challenging recent history. I came to be their interim pastor after an abrupt departure of their previous pastor. This is a guy who had come from faraway to be their pastor after their beloved pastor died during Holy Week not too many years before. Theirs is a familiar story of a new pastor not measuring up to the old pastor. Maybe there were other factors that contributed to the abrupt ending of the relationship between this pastor and church. It was one of the things that I had hoped to become clear in this act of memory.

As Oswald suggests, we worked backwards in time. We started with the present and attempted to work through each pastorate which meant that we started with me. So, I asked: what has happened since this relationship began? The responses were all about how it feels now. There were no particular events offered as they would struggle to do moving backward in time but it was mostly about feelings. There is more energy. There is a sense of togetherness. There has been healing. All good things but are these the type of things that we would record in the records of the church history? I don’t know. Then, it was time to talk about that previous relationship with that former pastor. Again, there were more feelings. So many feelings that it was hard to name the events that we might want to name as points of historical significance.

We moved on to talk about another interim and the beloved pastor and everything that was said was about how wonderful these men were. Of this, I have no doubt. They sound like amazing men who loved these people with such depth and power. It’s hard to argue with that. But, I do want to argue. I want to argue because the role of clergy is changing. With the increasing distrust of institutions, there are big questions about the role of professional ministry being raised. Clergy have gotten more and more professional but churches have been less and less able to afford their services (and their student loan debt). Questions have been raised about not paying clergy while others wonder if bivocational ministry should be the new normal. And yet, it is not just financial realities that are changing how clergy function.

Clergy were long ago seen as the theologian in residence and the only one that could offer pastoral care but that seems to be changing as much as how clergy lead. So, I want to argue with these good people about why and how clergy matter. (To be clear, this is my vocation. I loved what I do. I hope there are churches that want to pay me a salary with benefits and a pension in the future. I am called to this as I know that there are other clergy that are just as called to this work as I am.) But, should every church bear that financial burden of paying a clergy person? Should each individual congregation assume that the only measure of success is having their very own pastor?

I look back into the history of this church to see that they shared a pastor with the other United Church of Christ just a mile down the road. They decided in 1931 to dissolve that relationship but the history observes that the congregation always struggled with membership and finances. Would the best option for their future be to reignite that relationship? Are there other possibilities of partnership with the several other United Church of Christ congregations in the area? Is there only one mode of success? Does success only come with calling a new pastor? What might the past teach us?

Last Minute Plans for Lent

Lent is just one week away. Most plans have already been laid out. It’s been printed in the newsletter and in the bulletin. Resources have been ordered. Palms have been burned. (I know because the traffic on this old post on how to make ashes skyrocketed two week ago.)  Some have already done their food shopping for gallons of maple syrup and pancake mix for the Shrove Tuesday celebration. To those people, I just want to say: don’t forget the pancake games. No. Seriously. So much fun.

In truth, I am one of those pastors that usually plans far in advance. I don’t tend to procrastinate because it makes me nervous. I need a plan even if things change in the midst. I need to have some sense of what’s to come. It’s not just in church that I do this, by the way. But, this year is different. This year, I’m not a settled pastor. I’m an interim which I’m learning involves a different kind of leadership. I can’t plan as I might otherwise. Interim ministry isn’t just church as usual. It’s marked by transition and everything feels tentative. So, I can’t plan because what I need to do is listen.

This is a bit terrifying to the über planner. It was especially horrifying when I recently realized that Lent was so soon very and I had nothing planned. I freaked out and then I started planning. I’m sharing those plans in full awareness that we are in this together and sometimes we need a little help from our colleagues to make it all happen.

The church that I serve as an interim is a small, country church. They don’t tend to do anything programmatic on any other day but Sunday so planning Lent was really a matter of planning worship. There won’t be any adult education or special events to add to this congregation’s life. All that we experience together during this holy season will happen in worship.

After worship, on most Sundays, I lead a sermon talkback conversation which is where the idea for this preaching series began. It was in one of those conversations a few weeks ago that I heard some really solid theological claims without much heart. Good theology has its place but this is a church that really wants to grow. It believes it can grow but not without heart. It’s not enough to spout good theology. There has to be some passion to it. There has to be some sense of why it matters.

2016The theology I was hearing that day from these good people all centered around who Jesus Christ is.  So, after listening a little more to God in prayer, I opted to entitle this sermon series Who Do you Say That I Am? This is, of course, something that Jesus says in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20). I decided to break slightly from the Revised Common Lectionary and explore some theological claims that we make about who Jesus is as we try to answer his own question. Here’s the plan so far:

  • February 14: Jesus is… the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13)
  • February 21: Jesus is… the Messiah (Luke 9:18-27)
  • February 28: Jesus is…the Word (John 1:1-18)
  • March 6: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd (Luke 13:31-35)
  • March 13: Jesus is…the Light of the World (John 8:12-29)
  • March 20: Jesus is…the King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-49)

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how this will lead into Holy Week. This congregation shares their observance of Lent with the local ministerium that hosts weekly worship on Wednesdays, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I am not sure if this theme will play into how we journey into Jerusalem. That is something that I will need to listen for as we move through this season.

I chose some of my favorite theological claims and dodged a few others. For example, I really didn’t want to do suffering servant because I know that’s not who my Jesus is and I’m not convinced I could preach good news on that particular claim. I do know that I need to push myself though so there are two books I’m hoping to read this Lent to push my own theological imagination. In the spirit of this preaching series, I’ll be reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage which just came out in paperback yesterday. I’m also going to attempt to read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. That said, there is so much that could be added to this preaching series. I mean, really, it’s what we are preaching no matter what the season, right? So, there are certainly others  that might be added and I would hope that this series would inspire some exploration on theological claims beyond these six. That’s something I’ll have to think about. What’s the best way to encourage such exploration within this particular congregation?

CoverThough this church is a small church that won’t have any specisl educational experience to build upon our shared experience in worship, I do have something to offer if you’re a last minute planner. Several years ago, I wrote a curricula called Toward Transformation with the good people of the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine. It is a six-week study that navigates the Psalms in a desire to experience resurrection individually and communally. As worship tackles the question of who Jesus is and why that particular confession matters, this six-week experience might bring those questions to life in a slightly different manner. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit but I have to say it’s pretty awesome. Both times I’ve used it, it has led to some really awesome changes. You can download the resource from my Ideas + Resources.

Maybe you’re not interested in that so much as you want to know about the graphic. Want to make your own cool graphic for your church newsletter or social media campaign? I used Canva. Once you’re logged in, choose the Facebook Post option. You can choose any one of the free designs. (Why pay?) The one I chose seems to have disappeared. Sorry! Once you choose a template, you’ll need to replace the image with an image of Christ. Maybe you take a picture of one in your Sunday School classroom or in the stained glass in the chapel. I admit that this particular image makes it a little hard to read the text. Alas! Add your church information including address and worship time and hit download. Look how fancy you are!

How are your plans for Lent going?