Monday, October 26, 2015

Why I Have A Clergy Coach

I am just a few months into a new call (my third, but who's counting).  I have also moved to a new community in a new state.  In the location to which I have been called, I learned that it is possible to apply for a clergy coach, so I did.

I do have a number of years in ministry under my belt, and a fair amount of experience.  So, why get a coach?  Why would I need a clergy coach?  Isn't it a sign of weakness, admitting that I might possibly need help?

1.  Ministry is hard.  I think that every single one of us needs all the help we can get.  Though I have a church full of people who are pretty invested in my success, it is great to have people outside my parish who are also praying for me, and who care about me as a person and a pastor.  Ministry can also be painful.  Besides the thrill of new experiences and successes, there is also the loneliness of being in a new place, and the pain of experiments that crash and burn.  At these times, it is good to have outside resources who will give a different perspective, and who will help me get back up and do it all again.

2.  It is a Defense against Isolation.  Ministry can be a lonely profession.  There are not many people that it is appropriate to confide in, to test perceptions, and with whom I can process what I am thinking about.  I also think that pastors sometimes get caught in the trap of thinking they are supposed to be "the resident expert."  No one is an expert on everything, and I hope that my coach will help me remember that, be another source of wisdom, and also remind me that i have other sources of wisdom and experience around me, if I can be humble enough and curious enough to ask.

3.  Good leaders are not just born; they are made.  You can be the most awesome natural musician and still have to put in 8 hours a day of practice in order to hone your craft.  You can have natural gifts for writing or cooking or gymnastics, but still have to study, to try different recipes, to stretch your legs and your skills.

4.  I Want to Build on My Strengths.  One thing I have learned:  I'm always tempted to try to improve in the areas of my weakness rather than recognize and build on the places where I am strong.  A good leader plays to her strengths.  My coach knows this.

5.  I Don't Want to Stop Growing.  I want to invest in my own leadership.  I love learning, and I want to be intentional about adding new tools and growing in leadership skills, not thinking that I know it all or have learned everything I need to know.  A clergy coach will help me to learn by practice and encouraging me to stretch myself, to develop new habits instead of staying safe.

What are some other reasons a seasoned pastor can benefit from a clergy coach?  What would you add?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Stopping in at the Pre-School

I stopped in at the pre-school this afternoon.  It is right across from my church, and 'relating to the pre-school' was actually in my letter of call.  So, once a week, I lead a brief chapel service for one hundred or so pre-schoolers, and, lately, I have been stopping by for a half an hour or an hour, just dropping in on a couple of classes to see what they are doing.

At first, when I tried to stop over, I discovered it was nap-time, so I resolved to try a different time.  Today I stopped in late in the day, late in the week.  Everything was winding down for the weekend.

When I peeked in one classroom, the children were singing.  Their song was vaguely familiar.

As it turned out, they were learned to sing "Silent Night" in Spanish.  I stayed and listened, and resolved that I should learn Silent Night in Spanish too.  It seemed like a good idea.

After the singing was over, a small group of boys asked me to stay and play with them.  They got out a box of interlocking tubes, a toy that didn't exist when I was growing up.  The point is to put the tubes together in intricate designs and send marbles down along the tubes.  None of us was that good at putting together the tubes together, and at the end, we were just playing with the marbles.

I learned the boys' names, and that they were all four (although one of them claimed to be ten).

After awhile I ventured down to the kindergarten classroom.  That class looked pretty laid-back.  They were resting, and there was some down time to talk.  In a little while they were going to start watching a movie, but for a few minutes, we got to hang out.  They all wanted me to know when their birthdays were.  One little girl said she intended to invite me to her party.  I also learned their names and a few things they liked, especially their favorite colors.

I am not sure exactly what I am doing, stopping in at the pre-school.  It is not writing a sermon, or visiting a shut-in, or planning a worship service.  It is not visiting the superintendent of schools, or the mayor, or the chamber of commerce.  It is not strategic planning for the future.  It is just learning names and birthdays, and favorite colors, and building a tube.  I do not know what good I am doing, just that I am getting down on the floor, and then being all creaky when I stand up.

But "relating to the pre-school" is in my letter of call, so I have permission to do it.  I have permission to put down the heavy burdens of ministry for awhile, and play.  I have permission to take a break from dealing with grief and sorrow, to take a break from deep thoughts and difficult situations and the Future of the Church.  I have permission to sit on the floor, and sing songs and play with toys, and enter the Kingdom of God, where the Holy Spirit plays, and helps me remember who I am.

There are many things to do, but there is just one thing to be:  child of God.  There are many things to do, but one identity to nurture, and one name to become.  In everything we do, in every life we touch, in every mission of service or love or justice, there is just one strategy:  to learn the names.  To tell the names.  To tell them they are beloved.  To set them free to play.

Monday, October 19, 2015

What Makes Worship Good?

I don't know if it is just my particular neurosis, or if others share it, but I spend at least some part of every Saturday feeling unsettled.  I am thinking about Sunday worship, not only my words,  but the flow of the liturgy, how it all goes together, how it will be when we come together.  I pray over what I have prepared, but wonder about it.  Even if my sermon is all finished on Friday and my Saturday is relatively free, I still feel a little unsettled, thinking about it.

So, Sunday after church, and after the new member class, I thought:

Worship was good.

Just three words, nothing earth-shaking, no angel-choirs or trumpets, no big surprises.  But it made me wonder why I thought so.  What makes worship good?

It may be different for you, but here is what it was for me:

1.  There were generations present in church.  There was the college student and her mom, the two young girls in the front row.  There was a grandfather and his two grandchildren (and their parents too).    There was the matriarch of the church and one of our pre-school students.   There was an engaged couple, single parents, empty-nesters.  There were prospective members and visitors, too.  To me, it is not how many people are in church, but whether there are generations present that makes a difference.  It was enough.  It was good.

2.  I heard people singing together.  It might have been a hymn, or maybe it was a song, but I could hear the people singing out, and that made worship good.  It was a hymn they knew, believed, a song that made them want to sing at the top of their lungs.   Singing is at the heart of communal worship for me.  Sometimes, I will confess, it seems like we are losing the ability to sing together.  We don't know the same songs any more.  We don't all know the beat.  On Sunday, I heard my community singing.  And it was very good.

3.  I heard someone speak from the heart.  It was the beginning of our stewardship emphasis, and one of our members spoke at both services about her commitment to her congregation, and, more than that, about her love for her Lord.  She spoke her own words.  No one gave them to her.  She spoke about the places she services, and why.  She spoke about the grace that makes her open her hands to give.  And it was good.

4.  The Holy Spirit was there.  Every week, this is true, whether I feel it or not.  The Holy Spirit comes with each Spirit-filled child of God present.  I have an old CD by the Blind Boys of Alabama.  The title is "I Brought Him With Me."  In other words, I didn't come here to find God -- I brought God here with me, and because of that, this place is filled with the spirit of God.  The church is holy because God's holy people, saints and sinners, are present.

Other things make worship good for me as well, I'll admit:  when a line of a song moves me to tears, when I see someone I haven't seen in a long time, when we take a risk together, do something new, learn a new gesture, ask a question.  These things make worship good for me.  They make me think:  we are learning to trust God more, and trust each other.

What makes worship 'good' for you?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Changing Directions

This morning I opened my door expecting a fresh breeze.  Instead it felt a little muggier than usual.  Still, it was time to walk my dog, so we went for a walk.

It is fall here, so they say.  It is hard for me to notice the signs, because where I am from, the leaves are turning and the evenings have become chilly.  I am used to these signs, even when I grumble that fall arrives too soon and foretells a deep and dark and long snowy winter.

Here, the signs are subtler.  I can still wear my shorts, if I want to, even though it is fall.

I am not sure I want to, some days.

So, this morning, I took my dog out for a walk.  It was warm and still and the dog (who is a good sport, even at 10 years old) bounced around and sniffed everything.

And then, we turned around.

It was not my idea, actually, this 'turning around' thing, but I went along with it, and when I did, I felt it right away.

It was a breeze:  a lovely cool breeze that I never noticed until we turned, until we changed directions.  It was always there, but we needed to change directions to find it, to feel it.

The breeze was a small thing, but that is the way it is sometimes.  There are big changes, like turning around, and there are small things, like feeling the breeze, the wind of the Holy Spirit, who has always been with us, although we don't often notice.

I was at a conference most of last week.  The geography was so much different than here, and so much different than my home state as well.  We were up in the mountains, where the air is thin and you have to take deep gulps and slow down, where you can feel your heart beat and see the beauty all around.

We were talking about worship and faith formation, about the children in our churches, but not just the children.  We were talking about how to faithfully minister to all ages in a way that only the church can do:  by being together, by using the gifts of all the generations.   This does not sound like a big thing, but it represents a change in direction for us.  The church has gotten into the habit of segregating people by age much of the time.  Even in worship.  So we are thinking about how we might really honor the gifts and needs of all generations in worship, use our imaginations and our dreams, our bodies and our souls.

Today, I felt a breeze, a small reminder that the seasons change, that the Holy Spirit is among, and within us, to keep me on my course, changing my direction.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My faith, in community

Sometimes I do wonder why I am still here:  in the church, hoping wildly and unreasonably still in Jesus.  It is a mystery of faith, of the working of the Holy Spirit.  Somehow Martin Luther's words ring true:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. 

But just how has the Holy Spirit called me?

My parents brought me to church.  Every week.  My father sang the liturgy, and helped me find my place in the book, so that I could do it too. 

My parents prayed with us before we went to bed.  My father also read us Bible stories, from a book called "The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes."  He also pretended he was Methusalah, the world's oldest man, who knew all of the Bible characters.

My parents' friends were all active in their churches and talked about their faith.  One of their best friends went overseas to be missionaries in Papua New Guinea.

I went to church camp, sang "Pass it On", and learned to put little candles in my Bible next to verses that meant a lot to me.  A camp counselor once confessed to me that she sometimes had doubts about what she believed, but she was comforted by the fact that God knew more than she did, and knew that she was going through a time of doubt.

I went through times when I wasn't sure about what I believed about God or faith.

I had some intense religious experiences as a young adult.

I had great conversations with friends of other religions traditions, which really made me think about my own.

At my church, I taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, and went out to brunch with a group of widows.  I knew pre-school children, confirmation students, parents and retired people.

My parents brought me to the baptismal font, where I was joined to Christ, and to Christ's people:  so many people, so many ages, from so many places.  Love, incarnate.  The mystery of Holy Spirit, calling.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

I Have Loved Sunday School

I grew up in Sunday School.  From the time I was three years old and we were going to church at Augustana Lutheran, the church where my father grew up, I went to Sunday school every Sunday.  Even when we visited my grandparents in southwestern Minnesota, I went to Sunday School.  I didn't especially enjoy going to Sunday School when we visited a strange church, but I went.  They sent a postcard back to my Sunday School letting them know that I had attended.

I loved Sunday School, mostly.  I loved my teachers, who were not my parents, and who taught me that other adults in the church cared about me.  I loved learning the stories and playing the games with the other students, some of whom were my friends.  I liked when we drew pictures of churches, but then our teacher told us that the church wasn't the Building, it was the People inside who were the church.  I remember learning about the Old Testament and the New Testament, and about the parts of the liturgy, too:  Collect, Kyrie, Agnus Dei.

One week we had a Bible story about forgiveness, about how Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive.  Seven times?  When Jesus told him, "70 X 7", our teacher told us to try to figure the problem out.  But since we hadn't learned long division yet, all we could come up with was that it must be A Very Large Number.

Another time I was in 6th grade Sunday School and we were giving our teacher a bad time.  I think we were already thinking that this was boring and we didn't want to study the lesson.  Our teacher was a new member of the church, a young dad with three little girls.  We were giving him a tough time, so he decided that he would just share a little of his faith story with us.  He told us that they had had one other daughter, who had died of leukemia, and how that affected his faith.  I still remember that.

So, I grew up in Sunday School, and I learned some things.  I learned some things about relationships.  I learned some things about the church.  I learned some things about the Bible, although there were some gaps. For example,  I did not have a very good idea about how the stories went together, for one thing.  This was true even though I went both to church and to Sunday School every single week.

So I have to admit that Sunday School was not perfect, and it is even less perfect now.  Perfect attendance is rare now, for one thing.  It is hard to find enough teachers, and even if you find enough teachers, it is hard to find enough students who really want to go.  There are plenty of other options on Sunday morning.  Every parent can teach their child about Jesus, but not every parent can be a good Sunday School teacher.

I have loved Sunday School, but I have to admit that, for a lot of churches, and a lot of children, it isn't working.  They are not learning the stories of the Bible, but most of all, they aren't learning that other adults in the church care about them.

But one of the gifts of the church is still relationships.  It is a place where we can meet each other and know each other across generations, where we will realize that Forgiveness Is a Really Big Number, and where we can share stories and songs and pray and catch faith from one another.

If only we will only make the space.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Sin Problem

"We Don't Have a Gun Problem.  We have a Sin Problem."

I saw this on social media the other day, in reference, I am sure, to the shooting at the community college in Umqua, Oregon.

We have a Sin Problem.


 I'm a pastor.  It's hard to argue with that.  We do have a sin problem.  We also have a gun problem, which is not to say that I believe that all that we have to do is get rid of all of the guns, if we could even do that.  But yes, we have a sin problem, and yes, I also think that we have a gun problem as well, which is to say, that our sin problem has, at least in part, to do with guns.

Since sin is one of my specialties, let's talk about the sin problem.  I am not sure, but I suspect that when  some people say "we have a sin problem" (rather than a gun problem), they are talking about the individuals who do evil with guns, that the problem is not with guns themselves, but guns in the hands of evil, disturbed people.  It is a problem of individual sin.

But what do you do about that?  There have always been sinners; there will always be sinners.  The increase in these random acts of violence reveal something else about us, not just as individuals, but as a culture.

And then there is our inability to take some sort of action -- not to eliminate evil -- we can never totally eliminate evil.  But our inability to do something, anything, to take any steps, to even talk about what might work, to protect the vulnerable against acts of evil -- this also is sin.

We have a sin problem.

My fear is that somehow saying this will seem like enough, that someone will say, "we have a sin problem" and "let's pray about it", without realizing that the next step, after praying about it, might be to listen, really listen to what God wants us to do about it.  The next step is to repent, to change our mind, to change our ways, to change ANYTHING.

We have a sin problem.