religious

Atheist Churches: A Viable Option for Many

I’ve long been a proponent of the benefits of a church community. Nowhere else can you receive identity, support, encouragement, and companionship on the journey of life. Those who gather in the name of Jesus, regardless of belief about him, are influenced by him. Therefore, I’ve said and written, as we follow him and are changed by him, we reflect the kingdom forgiveness, grace, compassion, and justice he brought into this world.

So we teach/learn, pray, sing, hang out, and serve–all in the name of Christ. We’ve got the corner on that stuff. These activities reflect our Christianity and discipleship to a world that needs to see it, hear it, experience it. Recognizing this, we can be somewhat comfortable in our attempts to follow Jesus into the world. Our identity as Christians is clarified, honed,  and practiced “in church,” and then lived “in the world.”

All this unique to us, the church.

Until now. A recent movement with its genesis in the UK is Atheist Mega-churches. These weekly gatherings are gaining ground in the US, and provide a communal, supportive, beneficial gathering with music, inspiring speakers, and more. All without God or religion. And it seems to be catching on.

And I wonder, for many of today’s church-goers, if this could be just what we’re looking for. All the benefits of church and religion without all the problematic things like “Jesus” getting in the way. No, I’m serious about this.

Let’s face it, the biggest problem for the church is Jesus. Not only are there all the difficult demands like “love your enemies,” and “give to everyone who asks,” which most Christians conveniently opt out of, but there’s the whole divinity/resurrection thing. Not to mention bloody internal battles about such basics as baptism, Holy Communion, the Bible, worship, and ordination.

Many Christians, with nowhere else to go, endure the difficulties of arguing about Jesus and church doctrine. They put up with the inconvenience of feeling guilty about not being generous enough, holding grudges against evil-doers, questioning their faith, and inadequate biblical interpretation. They also are forced to put up with hypocricy, self-righteousness, and power struggles that pervade the local church. All this for the sake of being part of a church community. Apparently, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for many, as churches continue to permeate the American landscape.

The atheists have provided a solution for many. Individual beliefs don’t matter, doctrine doesn’t enter in, and there are no difficult mandates regarding accountability of behavior. If you are confused about whether the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus, represents the presence of Christ, or somewhere in between, the atheist churches welcome you. If you disagree about your church’s stand on homosexuality, the atheist churches probably don’t care. If Jesus’ concern for the poor and the marginalized cause you too much discomfort, the atheist churches aren’t likely to hold you to an impossible standard of generosity.

So I say, go get ’em, atheists! For all those in Christian churches who have difficulty with Jesus, thank you for providing us with a community, a sense of unemcumbered belonging, and freedom to feel like church without the difficulties. You are the new American Civil Religion, where we can maintain our individual preferences without having to be challenged by a mysterious higher authority. You allow us to make sense of the world on our own terms without concern over ancient doctrine or empty faith practices. We can follow our own agendas, free from guilt, compromise, or accountability. Community without the cross. Encouragement without the need for forgiveness. An inspiring presentation without preaching. Great music without praise.

I’m not kidding when I say it sounds like what many current church-goers are wanting. Thank you, atheist churches, for giving us a viable community experience with the ability to opt out of Jesus–and all the messiness and conflict he brings. There are days when I’d think about being part of you, when being a Christian is just too hard. There are days when I doubt, when I am helpless, when I am frustrated, when I am in dire need of forgiveness. You provide a way out: by side-stepping all that religious piety.

Perhaps I might join you one day. But for now, I guess I’ll stick with the hope recorded by a line of people seeking meaning and purpose for thousands of years. I’ll endure the mystery of contemplating something that is outside my ability to understand. I’ll trust in some mysterious author of ultimate goodness, who steps into my life and my world with mercy and unconditional love. I’ll face the presence of evil with the hope that it is not the final word for the world. I’ll take the grace that comes in the experience of deep-down, soul-wrenching forgiveness. And I’ll do it all as part of a messy, broken, hypocritical, sometimes judgmental community that doesn’t always represent Jesus very well. I guess, when I’m honest with myself, I fit there better.

Categories: american christianity, Institutional Church, missional church, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On the Impossibility of Revitalizing the Institutional Church

More and more, denominations are coming to the realization that starting new ministries is the most effective way to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in this era of “nones” and declining church participation across the board, reaching more people is in higher demand than ever. Regardless of what we may say to the contrary, church is still primarily a numbers game, and bigger certainly wins.

They may be right.

But for good or for ill, as a pastor, that isn’t what I’m called to do. Instead of forming a new ministry with no weirdness outside of my own, I’m called to deal with decades of previous, overlapping, compounded, criss-crossing weirdnesses in addition to my own. Instead of energy put into mission in the world, I’m called to deal with energy around preserving what has been. Instead of shaping a ministry from the outset to deal with the realities of 21st century culture, I’m called to deal with memories of church in the 1970s and 80s. Although I have never been a new mission developer, I have overseen that work, admired (envied?) those with the gifts to do it, and have an understanding of the intensity of work involved. I have celebrated with new mission developers who, in part because of their exhaustive work and dedication, have seen their ministries explode in growth. I’ve wept with new mission developers who, despite their exhaustive work and dedication, had to shut down their ministries before they ever got off the ground. By and large, developing new ministries is a pretty effective way to reach new people we haven’t been able to reach before, e.g., ethnic groups, LGBTQ folks, and Millenials. It’s exciting, invigorating, and exhausting!

And yet, I’m called to reach those people through the ministries of existing congregations. I don’t have the gifts, the aptitude, or the extroversion to start a new congregation. Since I believe with all my being that the church–whether 3 minutes old or 3 centuries–is created and called by God to proclaim and participate in God’s mission in the world, I have a choice to make. I can work to preserve and maintain an institutional congregation or I can attempt the impossible–revitalize one so it can embrace the LGBTQ community in the neighborhood, the Spanish-speaking in the neighborhood, and a new generation of those largely uninterested in anything the institutional church has to say in the neighborhood.

For me there is no real choice. I’ve spent almost 30 years feeling like Don Quijote, jousting at windmills. Many say the work that I (and any number of others) are trying to do is a waste of time, since it is so rarely successful. Sometimes I agree. I can’t begin to count the number of sleepless nights I’ve spent because my congregations  have chosen status quo over mission. My wife still experiences post-traumatic stress at congregational meetings because of the hateful and anti-Christian comments that have been said about her husband over the years. I believe I could fill a lake with tears spilled over people we’ve hurt in our stubborness, neighbors we’ve neglected in our obtuseness, Spirit-given opportunities we’ve missed because of our institutionalization. My children have seen the dark under-belly of the church, and have no illusions about how badly we can behave. I’ve yelled at God until I’m hoarse, begging for some tangible sign of success or mission advancement.

Is revitalizing an existing, institutional congregation impossible? I will never believe that. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same God of these status quo fortresses. Some of these institutions will die in the next generation. Others will manage to hang on. And a very few will be moved by the Holy Spirit to die to themselves and be raised again as communities boldly overflowing with mercy and grace in their surrounding neighborhoods. A very few.

And I want desperately to be part of one of those. I want to be in a faith community that uses its tradition and heritage as tools to be fully present in a broken world. I want to see the lights come on in the eyes of an 80-year-old guardian of the institutional church when he passes on his great faith to a teenager in baggy pants with his belt below his butt. I long for this.

And I’ve seen it.

Glory to God, I’ve been part of it. It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t get the glitz and the press of new mission starts. But I get glimpses of the reign of God present in the institutional church. I’ve seen a martriarch who fought me over every little change put her arms around a single mother and hold her. I’ve seen a stoic defender of the status quo mist up when serving holy communion to a disheveled stranger. I’ve watched as neighborhood children suddenly have advocates, as a quiet young mother prays with a sick and elderly woman, as a child actually shouts for joy after taking bread and wine with the rest of her congregation. I’ve been part of a church community where the mentally ill are accepted and the differently abled are treasured. I’ve been partners with the most disagreeable alligators who serve food in a homeless shelter every week, offering dignity and grace in addition to a plate of food and a warm bed.

You have too.

Honestly, there probably won’t be a lot of existing, institutional congregations that will look like exciting new mission starts. And some of our existing congregations need to recognize that their days are coming to an end. But God will not be denied. Resurrection is real. Perhaps our success isn’t to be measured in bunches of shiny new participants but in the straggly and disheartened ones who are touched by Christ’s love through us but will never step into our old buildings. Maybe the conflicts over carpet and wallpaper don’t overshadow the foundational love and compassion that are often shown in the neighborhood but even more often go unnoticed.

And, perhaps most importantly, we battered, bloodied, and sometimes exhausted clergy-types need to support one another in seeing God at work in our midst. Attempting to be part of the revitalization of an exising church is lonely, difficult, and endless work. The rewards are few and far between. The glamour is usually non-existent. So perhaps it would be a good idea to call a pastor in your neighborhood and take them to lunch. Listen and find ways to affirm what they are doing. Ask them to do the same for you. God’s reign is happening all around us–let’s make sure we don’t miss it due to weariness or discouragement from attempting an impossible job.

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, missional church, religious, Revitalization, spirituality | 4 Comments

“I’m Just Fine Without Your Religion”

Finally, some in the  church are getting it. People aren’t looking for a church with great youth programs, good education, relevant preaching, historic liturgy, or a solid band. No, they aren’t looking for a church that will support them in difficult times. And, no, they arent looking for a place from which to be buried. The fact is, they aren’t looking for a church at all. Period. That is all.

Once we get that, we are free to be an authentic church, in relationship with our neighborhoods. From there, we are best equipped to participate in, and reveal, the reign of God. It all starts, however, with listening–something at which the church has been historically bad.

Check out this outstanding blog post by Laura Everett to get a clue about how different the future of the church is looking if we are faithful.
http://reveverett.com/2013/06/11/religious-nones/

Listen, listen, listen to those outside the church. People don’t want a church. At least not the way we’re presenting it. Perhaps not at all. Can we live with that? What does that mean for how we see ourselves? For our measurements of success? For our relationships with our neighbors?

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, missional church, religious, spirituality | Leave a comment

The Church is Not for Me

I suspect you are reading this post for one of three reasons. One, that you follow this blog and find it interesting enough to continue. Second, that you read the title of this post and were hoping for more reasonable arguments you can use against your persistent church-going friends. Or, third, you know I like to play with the titles of my blog posts and were curious where I might be going. Well, you decide as you go along.
Our culture (U.S. American) is changing, and quickly. The Generation that was going to save the world–the Baby Boomers–is now retiring without having saved much. GenX is now middle aged and, by many accounts, hasn’t lived up to the hype. The Millennials are now the hope for the future, with a Generation Z (sometimes referred to as the “Homeland Generation”) being born right on their heels.
Lots of research is being done in church circles as to how to “reach” the Millennials. Some of it is helpful–especially when it comes from those who are of that generation. And some of it is unintentionally humorous, especially when it comes from Boomers who are struggling to make sense of people so different than they are. Millennials are not coming in droves into our churches, and with good reason. Our churches are not for them.
I am a late Boomer myself, so I’m part of those struggling to present excitingly good news to people who aren’t hearing it that way. My generation is now famous in the church for “seeker worship,” “entertainment evangelism,” and “safe anonymity.” Come and watch, keep to yourself, and see if there’s enough in worship to hold you. The generations  above me, the Silent Generation and the Builders, put up with this–but not happily. They’ve had their own struggles with church.
The point that has often been  made from generation to generation is that “the church’s worship isn’t relevant.” Pardon my cynicism, but it’s kinda trendy now to talk about being “spiritual but not religious,” and to avoid the church because it is “judgmental, hypocritical, narrow-minded.” Or tout new ways the church can look, e.g., “emergent church,” “ethnic-specific ministry,” “age-specific ministry.” It’s not uncommon now to even refer to the church as the source of all manner of evil. I’m not disagreeing, I’ll just deal with that in a different post. The point being that we struggle so deeply to connect to our culture to our worship (or theother way around) that we lose our anchor in the storm, i.e., the church’s purpose.
The other side of that involves churches who claim the high road of continuing the way they have been “doing church” for decades and expecting those who aren’t inside the church to connect to liturgy. Again, cynicism, but sorry; 17th century hymns and chants don’t automatically reverberate in the hearts of those not brought up with them (or even some who were).
It seems to me that we keep struggling to help the church meet every new generation in worship. What will they like? What will appeal to them? How can we get them to come? How can we convince them that what we’re doing in worship is really appealing? And so, in our desperation to be relevant, we’ve missed the point of being church. We’re still focusing on getting those outside to come “in,” even though our purpose has always been getting those inside to go out.
So how about if, instead of starting with worship as the focal point, we began with what God is doing in the world. Instead of discussing which form, style, emphasis, music, ritual, tradition, or volume of worship was better, we discussed how our worship connected those present with God’s mission? This is dangerous talk, because if we take this seriously, the church becomes less about “me,” or more about “the world.” My agenda and preference for worship style won’t be what decides how we worship. Those who control what happens on the inside of the church won’t get their (our) way. If our emphasis is on connecting worship with God’s missional activity, we don’t pick songs and hymns based on what those who come every week prefer.
For many congregations, this is scandalous at best, and a declaration of war at worst.
So, typically, my congregation is stepping in to this quagmire. This is one of our summer projects. We have had two forms of worship for about 13 years, and although there have been real benefits (including an expression of the gift of diversity), one negative outcome has been a container to hold a divided congregation. “My” worship vs. “your” worship, and never the ‘twain shall meet. For us, our disunity has affected our vision and ability to support one another in missional movement forward. So we are stripping down worship and starting over. We will pack everyone into one worship service each Sunday to express the reality that we are unified in Christ with one purpose. Our first week will be bare-bones, deliberately not appealing to “early” worshipers or “late”worshipers, but a simple service with (gasp!) no music at all. Based somewhat on congregational input, it will evolve over the summer (music will be added the second week–whew!) but the emphasis will deliberately be on unity in purpose. We exist not for ourselves but to be part of what God is doing in the world.
Worship should never have become the barometer for measuring a successful church. If we want to measure worship, it needs to be how what we do corporately on Sunday connects people to God’s missional activity around us. The church is not for me. No, it is for (and has always been for) the sake of the world. And that includes worship.
Since we are unclear as to what worship will look like at the end of the summer, I would value input and conversation around what the intertwining of God’s mission in the world with Sunday worship looks like for you. I believe we would all benefit.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, missional church, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Boston: Don’t Talk of Forgiveness

Like everyone else in the country, I’m angry, confused, sad, frustrated, and grieving. The evil revealed in Boston this week cuts deeply. I was born in Boston and have family there. I’ve been in contact with several of them and they are overwhelmed in the throes of this tragedy.

How many other parts of the U.S. have undergone similar experiences? I live in the Denver metropolitan area, and know this terror and anger firsthand. April 20, 1999 is forever etched in our hearts as we went through the shock of a massacre at Columbine High School—the same school district where my children were enrolled then. Then less than a year ago—July 20, 2012—a deranged young man enters a movie theater in another nearby suburb of Denver and opens fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Oh, yes, the emotions are powerful.

Inevitably, religious zealots appear on this Boston scene of horror and chaos. Some come with further hatred, but they are more readily dismissed. More difficult are the naïve religious zealots who talk of forgiveness. Really? Forgiveness for brutally killing 8-year-old Martin Richard who was guilty only of eating an ice-cream cone and watching the marathon with his family. Forgiveness for murdering Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old mathematics and statistics graduate student from China? Forgiveness for cruelly slaying Krystle Campbell, who was planning to celebrate her 30th birthday with her family in a couple of weeks? Forgiveness for the countless injuries—both physical and emotional? Forgiveness for callously hurling so many into the depths of fear, grief, and turmoil? Forgiveness for changing the lives of those who lost limbs, who were first to respond and help, who lived in abject terror as their city was locked down in martial law until a semblance of order could be restored?

Forgiveness? You’ve gotta be kidding. How can anyone realistically talk about forgiving that which is unforgiveable?

Which poses a bit of a dilemma for those of us in the church. Forgiveness is, in fact, the very cornerstone of our faith. It is our foundation, our identity; the core characteristic of the God that Jesus came to reveal in our broken world. We talk about the cross of Christ as the height of God’s commitment to forgiving the world. Granted, some talk about God’s forgiveness being conditional, based on one’s act of repentance and/or making a declaration of Jesus as savior. My “brand” of Christianity isn’t among those, however. I have preached with enthusiasm and vehemence that God’s forgiveness—like God’s love—is unconditional. It is simply who God is.

Now I, and others like me, have to again reconcile what we’ve been proclaiming with the reality of Boston. I find it less-than-compassionate to impose in Boston the extra burden of attempting forgiveness when the rawness of this tragedy still pains wounded hearts and limbs. So what can I say to those who take Christian faith seriously and—on top of everything else—now experience some sense of guilt for an inability to forgive the evil perpetrators of this horror?

Right now I say, “Don’t worry about it. God understands. God is as angry and as pained as you are. God is walking in the midst of the agony and the devastation with you. God holds you as you get through today.” I believe that is the Godliest thing to say and to do. Hold and comfort and walk with those who are hurting and trying to make any sense of what their lives now are. As long as it takes. With whatever it takes. Boston, we walk with you in your pain and in your grief.

And someday we’ll also walk with you in the difficult journey of forgiveness. Before you quit reading, it’s relevant to say that we’ve been misinformed about forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we pretend all’s well. It doesn’t mean we forget what has happened. It doesn’t mean we ignore the hurt and the grief and the loss we’ve experienced. The surviving perpetrator will never be our friend. We can feel angry, and in fact ought to. We can seek justice, and in fact ought to. Forgiveness doesn’t negate that, nor should it cause us to feel guilty for experiencing anger and justice. But it does mean that there is more than those feelings.

Forgiveness begins by recognizing that what has happened cannot be changed. There are those who’ve died, who’ve lost limbs, who have suffered loss. That is real. That is permanent. It is now part of our future from this day forward. Yes, anger is a necessary part of coming to terms with all that. Working to ensure those responsible are kept apart from society while attempting to keep such atrocities from happening again is what responsible people do. But nothing we do will ever change what happened this week in Boston.

I believe the hardest part of forgiveness (and the part that makes it divine—and therefore foreign to us) is the acceptance that God still loves those we hate. It is recognizing that the image of God is still in the other who has shown everything contrary to God in our midst. Those responsible for all this pain and terror in Boston were created by a God of love and life. That is hard to swallow. Accepting that is also not immediate. It is also not within our ability to choose. It is God’s work within us; and like so many things God does, it can take a long time.

I don’t think it’s helpful to be in a hurry to get there. God will work in us according to our own journey. That’s up to God. Where we fail isn’t in being angry or seeking justice and safety, it’s in clinging to our anger once God begins that work of moving us past it. Though the loss is permanent, the anger is not. Forgiveness means that we allow God to do what God does. It is God’s work in us; we do a disservice to those in Boston by suggesting they try to drum it up from within themselves.

Categories: Church in Context, faith practices, missional church, religious | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Church: The Practice Field for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a nice word, isn’t it? It brings up images of reconciliation, restored relationships, people getting along, and everyone being nice. If only it was that easy. Forgiveness is, quite honestly, hard work. It doesn’t always happen quickly, nor does it always happen easily. It takes a desire to get better at it. It is anything but natural for us sinful human beings. And yet it is crucial for relationships as well as a witness about the nature of the God who is committed to forgiving us. We can continue to grow in our ability to forgive. It takes practice. The church is precisely the place to do so. The church, you see, is the practice field for forgiveness.

Forgive me (haha!) for using a sports metaphor here, but I believe it makes a good point. Using American football as a “for instance,” there is the practice field, and then there is the separate, official game field. The practice field gets used to hone skills, learn plays, and repeat them until they are automatic. This practice field is where you make mistakes, try again, and work at each skill until you get them all right. Then you take those refined skills to the official field and see how well you do in the real situation of a game against another team that will test how well you’ve practiced your skills. Then you’re back the next week at the practice field honing, refining, and practicing your skills even further.

Forgiveness is one of the skills that we work on as disciples of Jesus. We do so because it’s central to our life in Christ. We do so because it is the foundation of our relationship with God. We do so because forgiveness is the nature of God who created us, gives us life, and who holds us in constant forgiveness. To understand anything about God—to have anything to do with love—we have to understand something about forgiveness.

So we work at it. Within the community of the church we can practice, hone, refine, and learn the ways of forgiveness. Here in the family of faith we make our mistakes, we try again, and we work at forgiveness of each other. As we try this skill out in the world around us, the official game field, we have our forgiveness skills tested. Sometimes we find that it’s harder than we thought. So we come back, again and again, to the church. For it is here, on the practice field, that we hear, learn, experience, try, and grow in our practice of forgiveness. Here forgiveness is granted to us over and over. And here we get to try it out on each other and see how it works.

Even on the practice field forgiveness can be difficult. It is still hard work. But the crucified and risen Christ who lives in and among us accomplishes it. Through Christ forgiveness is the nature of the church.

The next posting on this site will provide some practice skills we can work at to hone our forgiveness.

Categories: religious, spiritual disciplines, spirituality | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

God’s Test Plot

What do God’s values look like in your context?

No, really, what are the results of forgiveness, love, grace, and generosity being lived in your neighborhood?

Here’s the deal: God is bringing a new future that lines up with God’s own priorities. God is actively doing this. It will happen. It is happening. Right now. Jesus is the visible, tangible, focal point of that reality. God’s mission is all about redeeming a broken creation. Period. In the death and resurrection of Christ, God shows creation just how committed God is to that future. It’s here. We get to see samples of it now and again.

So God has gathered a community of people and elected them to be a “test plot” for this new future. According to an article published by Purdue University (full article), the goal of an agricultural test plot “is to identify differences among ‘treatments’ under ‘real world’ conditions.” In other words, this new community is “treated” by God with forgiveness, unconditional love, unlimited mercy, and extravagant generosity, then lives these values in the midst of the world as a sample of God’s new future.

The purpose of this new community, the church, is to allow the world to sample God’s future now, in the context of their everyday lives. The church is comprised of us who are baptized into this community in the name of the Father, + and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We exist as church for the sake of being a sample of God’s future in the world. For the sake of the world.

This means the church stands for some things. And it means the church stands against other things.  For example, the church does not exist to get people into heaven when they die. It does not exist to get people to believe a certain way. It does not exist for its own sake. It does not exist to gain members or improve programs or enlarge its own budget. Rather, the church is placed in neighborhoods so that those neighborhoods have the opportunity to sample the love, forgiveness, authentic relationships, and generosity of God’s present/coming reign. And having experienced its effects, are then changed by them.

The ways that the church can participate as test plots of grace and unconditional love are innumerable. Though the values of God’s present/coming reign are the same in all places and in all times, the world culture in which those kingdom values are lived varies incredibly. The context of each congregational community is unique. Therefore, when the values of God’s reign are introduced into each context, it will look different according to each context. More on that next time. But for now, consider how you are living the forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity of God in your own context. What are the results?

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, kingdom of God, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Insights into the Election of a Bishop, Part Two: “The Presence of God Revealed in Unlikely Ways”

Part Two: “The Presence of God Revealed in Unlikely Ways”

This blog is mainly a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding and participation in God’s mission. However, the next few posts will be more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.

Here’s the situation: I was recently a “middle of the pack” nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial at whatever level you are open. You can catch up by reading Part One here.

Because of the way the bishop election was set up, my name, photo, and biographical information (resume), along with the 16 other pre-nominees, were quite public for more than two months before the actual election process in April. The rationale was to give voting members plenty of time to review information on potential candidates and to come to the assembly prepared to nominate and vote in successive ballots.

In the meantime, I had informed my congregation council of these events and possible ramifications. They were supportive, asked appropriate questions, and agreed to keep this confidential ntil such time as we could agree on the most appropriate way to inform the congregation. We decided that a congregation-wide email, written by me, would go out in the next few days. That would be followed up by verbal explanation by me on the following Sunday during worship. My fear was that the congregation would somehow receive this news as a desire on my part to leave them—which couldn’t be further from the truth. The congregation, however, was characteristically supportive and promised to keep this election process—and me—in prayer.

On another front, many conversations among fellow clergy-types included the list of seventeen potential candidates. There was a lot of evaluation, a lot of questions, and a lot of critique. Motives were guessed at and qualifications examined. This began as a time of severe self-consciousness for me. I felt as if I needed to remain quiet among colleagues lest it appear I was somehow campaigning for this office. At the same time I wanted to remain authentic and speak among them of those things about which I have knowledge and passion. It was a difficult and tension-filled balancing act.

In the midst of balancing this fear and tension God broke through in a couple of impressive ways. The first involved my daughter, who for medical and other reasons had left college before graduating a couple of years earlier. She came over to the house one evening and announced to my wife and me that she had applied, and had been accepted, to return to college. She told me that if I could enter into this bishop process in spite of my terror, she could face whatever issues might come her way and complete her degree. As a self-proclaimed education snob, I was beyond grateful. I was thrilled. I was delighted. If I had the skill and agility, I would have danced. Even if this was all that came out of this whole “bishop thing” (as my family and I now called it), that was more than enough.

 

The second thing God did was exorcise a personal demon in my life. All of the old torments from Junior High that I thought I had dealt with long ago had been resuscitated in this process. Irrational fear and self-consciousness that I thought had been put to death had merely been covered over. Now that I was more or less forced to deal with the vulnerability that accompanied being one of the seventeen potential nominees for bishop, God took the opportunity to rid me of many of those fears. As I dealt with my paralyzing terror of ridicule, mockery, and snickering, I became aware of how much influence those things still had in my life. I also became aware of how their hold on me was disappearing. I can only explain the liberation I was experiencing as an exorcism. The demon of fear was being cast out of me. I was being set free. This was a biblical experience in the most profound sense of the term. It was deeply spiritual. The crucified and risen Jesus had come, found me in my terror-bound captivity, and set me free.

 

A member of my congregation asked me, a couple of week before the synod assembly, what was going on with me. My preaching, this person said, now has a further power and clarity that wasn’t there before. My only explanation was that death and resurrection are real. I was experiencing it. Again, if this is what came out of the “bishop thing,” I would be more than grateful. I was, for the first time, content in the chaos and weirdness of this pre-election process. Let the synod assembly come. Whatever happened would be fine with me. The outcome of the election of our new bishop in some ways no longer mattered to me. There was no pride at stake if I wasn’t actually nominated and no anxiety if I was actually elected. It wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about me. It was about God continuing to reveal God’s self in some strange and wonderful ways. There was peace. My yoke was now easy. My burden was now light.

 

I was ready for anything at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly. I fully expected the Spirit of God to be at work, even through the church! Which will be the focus in Part Three.

 

Categories: american christianity, religious, rostered leaders, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Insights into the Election of a Bishop: Part 1, “Fear Doesn’t Make Your Decisions for You.”

This blog was always intended to be a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding of participation in God’s mission. However, the next few posts will be more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.

Here’s the situation: I was recently a nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Granted, I was a “middle of the pack” kind of nominee, but a nominee nonetheless. I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial on whatever level you at which you are open. So here we go. Part One: Fear Doesn’t Make Your Decisions for You–

The Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, elected a new bishop at its most recent assembly in April. I couldn’t be more pleased with the selection of the Rev. James Gonia as our new bishop. Jim is without a doubt qualified, competent, experienced, gracious, humble, and called by God to that position. I am elated that the RMS is in such very good hands indeed.

The process leading up to that election was new for us. It involved months of discernment, prayer, meetings, and reading. Last December, all people in the RMS were invited to consider submitting the name of any ELCA pastor they deemed likely to be nominated for the office of bishop. Bear in mind this wasn’t a nomination, it was a “pre-nomination” of those considered likely to be nominated once the assembly opened in April. Confused yet?

As it turned out, I was among the group of “pre-nominees.” No one was more surprised than me to find that I was on that list with 63 other pastors. Someone thought I was at that level of leadership, clarity, maturity, and responsibility to have submitted my name for consideration on this list. I had, apparently, fooled at least one person.

In order to remain on the list of potential nominees, the 64 “pre-nominees” were asked to submit biographical information by filling out a three-page online form. This information would then be publicized throughout the entire Rocky Mountain Synod. Since I had never seriously considered myself “bishop material,” and had never really aspired to that office, declining this offer to fill out detailed information on my views of the office of bishop, my gifts, my challenges, and more seemed an easy call to make. I intended to save myself the embarrassment and headache of this process by simply removing myself now. I didn’t necessarily feel called by God to be a bishop, knew all too well the gaps in my own leadership, and understood that I had a slim-to-none chance of being elected anyway. Withdrawing seemed an easy decision.

But in conversations with God, my family, and trusted colleagues about all this, here’s what I realized during the intervening weeks. This process for me was less about “winning” an election and more about what God may be up to. Maybe I wasn’t called to be bishop, but perhaps I was called into the process for other non-bishop reasons. If God was doing something, and I was being invited to be part of it, then maybe I should consider going along and seeing what that was about. As a strong introvert and foundational nerd whose default setting is to shy away from any situation that might open me up to ridicule, this prospect was terrifying at a core level. I desperately wanted out.

Up until now all this had been someone else’s doing. I hadn’t sought this out; someone else had given my name to the synod office. But if I submitted the requested biographical information, I was saying in a very public way that I was open to being considered for the office of bishop. I could hear the taunts and jeers now, surprisingly similar to those that haunted me through Junior High and High School. “Hey, everybody, look at Moss! He actually thinks he’s got a chance at this! Ha! Who does he think he is? What a loser.” And I could already hear the sneers and the laughter echoing from all corners of the four states and part of a fifth that make up this synod. Junior High terror again, only now swelled to a multiple state level.

“I can’t do this,” I told my family after several sleepless nights. “This whole thing simply terrifies me. I can’t sleep, I can’t think, I have knots in my stomach. This is worse than when I tried out for the Junior Varsity basketball team in 7th grade. The whole school was laughing at the skinny near-sighted geek who thought he could play basketball. It’s just not worth it.” At that point I was glad I didn’t know who had submitted my name because I was thinking somewhat less than charitable thoughts about them.

Then my 25-year-old daughter had the audacity to remind me that as they were growing up, I had always told my kids that when facing new and difficult choices, “fear doesn’t make your decisions for you.” “Doesn’t that apply to you now, dad?” she asked. Dammit. Parental sayings of wisdom are deliberately abstract and are supposed to be for the benefit of the children. They were not meant to be used as weapons to be hurled back at you when you least want to hear them. Because they are freakishly effective.

I stewed on this for a couple more weeks. I spoke with colleagues, confided with my wife, and prayed some rather unpleasant prayers. I pretended I knew just how Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane, and told God that since the salvation of the world was hardly at stake here, couldn’t I just be let off the hook?

But finally, if for no other reason than avoiding accusations of hypocrisy from my three adult children, I quickly filled out the biographical information form and, with trembling hand and churning stomach, submitted it the evening of the last day it could be accepted. Then I went and threw up.

My closest consolation at this point was that there were 63 other pre-nominees. I was certain most of them would also fill out the biographical information and that my name and photo would then be lost in the midst of them. To my horror, when the bios were published, there were only 17 of us. My name, picture, and hastily drafted biographical information were thrust out into uncontrolled internet space where I was certain the mocking and snickers would be unrestrained. My insecurities were flying brightly high atop the flag pole. Every molecule of self-doubt, nerdiness, and inadequacy had risen up and was standing at full attention. There was, from this point on, no place to hide. What was more, now that it was public, I had to tell my congregation.

Watch for Part Two: “The Presence of God is Revealed in Unlikely Ways”

Categories: faith practices, religious, rostered leaders, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why I Need to Have Conversations With the Religious Right

I posted a blog yesterday (Why Can’t I Have Conversations With the Religious Right?) about the religious left and right engaging in conversation for the betterment of God’s mission and the church’s purpose within it. The responses to it were pretty much everywhere. My writing style can get a bit satirical, tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, and irreverent. Some readers get that, some don’t. I think some responded to the title of the blog without actually reading it. Regardless, my hope was to help us all–right, left, in-between, non-labeled, other–to listen to one another, learn from one another, and seek expression to the unity that Jesus has already given to us.

My friend Chris has written a blog post that states what I was trying to say, but without the satirical edge. She tends to lean a bit left also, but there is no sense of trying to defend that position over against another one. I encourage you, if you desire growth that comes from understanding a different perspective outside your comfort zone, to click here and read a very well written post.

In the meantime, as  another friend, Natalie, suggests, take someone with an opposite perspective to coffee and listen. Here’s the challenge for us: hear the voice of God in the words of someone whose views on religion, theology, church, faith, God, or Christianity drive you absolutely bonkers.

I invite you to post your experiences with “the other” here! Let’s learn from one another.

Categories: religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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