Posts Tagged With: church

The Emerging Neighborhoods

Well worth the read, UMC Bishop Ken Carter writes an article making the point that neighborhoods are no longer what they used to be. It is rare that people gather in their geographical neighborhood as their source of community. Now, community happens through networking, which has become the new “third place” for community (the first two being home and work).

The church must pay attention to this reality if we are to develop trusting relationships within our “neighborhoods.” People have long since given up using church (or even church buildings) as a central community place. They do not feel safe doing so. I find this tragic, but true.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg, quoted in the same article by Bishop Carter, recognizes a meaningful and successful “third place” for experiencing community exhibits particular characteristics, some of which are quite lacking in many of our churches.

Oldenburg writes about these characteristics of an inclusive “third place” community:

. . . [T]here are no economic barriers to entrance; there is food and drink; the space is highly accessible; there are regulars, who are usually present, and newcomers, who are welcomed and received with ease.  It is also often the case that a third place has the quality of a neutral space, that the dominant mode of communication is conversation, and that the mood is playful.

Coffee shops have come to fill a geographical niche here, as churches (including Sunday mornings) fail to achieve many of these characteristics. Special interests and participation in particular causes create natural networks that serve to fill our need for community in non location-specific ways.

The point seems to be that as long as churches continue to exist primarily for themselves and their members, and until we create an environment in which all are included (newcomer and charter-member side by side), our inroads into our neighborhoods seem to be limited.

Categories: american christianity, Church in Transition, missional church | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

New Resource for Congregations!

TheNeighborhoodChurch.flyer

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, medium church, missional church, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Caving to Consumerism: Christian Calling or Corrupt Coercion?

I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I’m not sure how to resolve it—or even if there’s anything to be resolved. Many people look to the church for practical advice on daily life. What does the Bible say about how to keep my kids off drugs? What is God’s will for my spouse? How can the church make me a better person? I need a girl/boyfriend; does the Bible give any tips on how to find a good match?

From authentic life-obstacles to a truly selfish prosperity “gospel,” there are many congregations and denominations that provide answers to such dilemmas. And usually these answers follow a particular pattern: God wants you to have “x,” so if you do “y,” God will do “z,” whereby you end up with “x,” and life is good. Because I want a better marriage, children who are more polite, a higher paying job, an easier life, a healthier body, I can go to church and get the steps from God/the Bible. I can follow them and bam! I have what I want and God’s blessings to boot.

I consider this to be, in the words of Tommy Smothers, “El toro poo poo.” It is simply consumerism at its most base level. I will go to church for the primary purpose of getting something. If one church brand doesn’t give me what I think it should, I can switch to the next one. And I can simply keep moving around until I find a church brand that gives me what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it in a church, I’ll look somewhere else. After all, it doesn’t matter what the “dispenser” looks like as long as my life gets better, right?

I believe that God, the Bible, and the church are bigger than that and desperately more important than that. I am also recognizing I’m in the minority, a minority that is getting ever smaller. Jesus, as I understand him, goes a completely different direction. The call of Christian disciples isn’t to provide religious blessings and recommendations for a better personal life. It is to be part of God’s work of redeeming and caring for all of creation. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.35).

Now perhaps some good, practical counsel can help us do that with deeper wisdom and fewer distractions, but improving my own life situation cannot be an end unto itself—insofar as being a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church is concerned. We are to practice forgiveness, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, and grace and carry that into our Monday through Saturday world. We are to show the world what God’s love looks like. We are to reveal the presence of God in the world. We are to point to signs of the reign of God anywhere we recognize them. We are to teach and equip disciples to be part of God’s mission according to our particular contexts (though I think we have a lot to learn about context).

Yet there is a continual call for a consumer approach to church. Generally, people aren’t captivated by being part of a renewed world free of violence and injustice, where all are loved and valued. Rather, we become excited about solving personal problems and taking steps to make our own lives more fulfilling.

My quandary is whether or not there is room for consumerism in the church. Is it sticky enough to use as a connection to people, genuinely caring for their personal needs, and then offering a larger vision of God’s mission in the world?  Is that a manipulative bait-and-switch, or an authentic incarnational approach to mission? Or something else entirely?

What do you think?

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, Make Disciples, missional church | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

An Inviting Environment (No Longer Welcoming, Pt. 4)

A few weeks ago, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” This is a move from passivity to activity, and was to be done in keeping with God’s missional activity in our neighborhoods. Get the vision, theology, and definitions that are the foundation at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases. The first of those is Motivating-for-Invitation. The second emphasis is Inviting-in-Bite-Size-Chunks. This post is the third emphasis, “An Inviting Environment.”

It started with coffee. Very few worshipers were staying on Sunday to share a cup or a piece of cake or a slice of cantaloupe (we always have good treats!). Virtually no visitors in worship stuck around. Granted, our “coffee area” was less than conducive to invitation. It was pushed into an available corner back by the kitchen. Though visible from the worship area, it was small and not very accessible. If one person filled their cup and then began a conversation while still in front of the urn (because there was no other place to move), the coffee’s availability to anyone else was cut off. Because we have no narthex (lobby) area, this was really the least bad option for the placement of our sacramental coffee. Yet it obviously wasn’t working.

As our council talked through our “Invitation Initiative,” it became clear to us that our environment was far from invitation-friendly. Some changes in our worship/fellowship space would be required if all those people being invited were to feel welcomed.

Now I know this sounds like “welcoming” instead of “inviting.” And, in fact, that’s partially true. Bear in mind, we weren’t giving up on welcoming; we were just placing invitation as a significantly higher priority which would get our best energy and focus. Beyond just the “welcoming” aspect of our space, however, there was a genuine invitation issue around worship and the follow-up coffee and treats.

For us, relationships are everything. We believe that the Triune God is God-in-Relationship. We believe that as beings created in God’s image, we are relational people. We believe that authentic relationships in the broader community are the best way we can reveal the reign of God and participate in God’s missional activity. Relationships are key in our congregation’s statement of purpose. Therefore, this “coffee time” comes out of our core identity. It is here that we have a chance to share, to talk, to get to know new people, to laugh together, to strengthen relationships. It’s not the only way, but it is an important way. Our configuration wasn’t allowing this to happen. Invitation, particularly to the relational coffee urn, was being unintentionally discouraged. We needed a more invitational environment.

So we looked at our overall space and considered where the most invitational place for coffee et al would be. For us, it turned out to be in a large open area that was adjacent to our worship space. By adjacent, I actually mean included. Right up the right hand side. That would be fine, except for setting up coffee and the treat table toward the end of our first worship service each Sunday would be a bit distracting, to say the least.

Someone asked why don’t we reconfigure the worship space so that new coffee area would be in the back rather than along the side. That would be fine, but now we’ve got a back lighting issue from large windows there. Plus the projector and screen used for portions of worship would then be in the wrong place and not easily visible. Lots of other small issues kept emerging.

It was discouraging. These obstacles could have piled up and overwhelmed us. But instead, we took this as an opportunity to enhance our worship space, making it work better, be more inspiring, and be more attractive than before. With some imagination (and some unused memorial money) we have a much more attractive worship space and a much more invitational coffee space. The difference in the environment—physically, spiritually, and invitationally—was amazing.

On the Sunday morning when this was all unveiled, we pointed out that the change in environment also serves as a tangible reminder of our emphasis on invitation. The environment wasn’t changed just for you, it was also for those who aren’t here. Our environment is invitational for the neighborhood’s sake, so each of us could invite others more freely. Oh, and as long as you’ve invited them to worship, make sure you invite them to coffee, too.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, hospitality, medium church, missional church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Sized Chunks. Pt. 3

A few weeks ago, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” This is a move from passivity to activity, and must be done in keeping with God’s missional activity in our neighborhoods. I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in the initial, Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases. The first of those, “Motivation for Inviting,” is available here. This, now, is the second emphasis, “Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Size Chunks.”

Let’s face it, change is hard. Most of us resist it, grudgingly accepting its reality only when it is forced upon us. Partly this is true because change is scary, and partly because it forces us to acknowledge we can’t always control it (well, actually, that’s scary too). So I guess when you come down to it, change is frightening. Is it any wonder, then, that we generally resist stepping way outside our comfort zone and established pattern of behavior to invite a friend to come to worship? This is terrifying! We are all afraid a) that our friend will laugh us out of the room, b) that they will tell all their friends that we’re narrow-minded, judgmental, hypocritical Bible-thumpers, or c) that they might actually come. Then what?

Because the change we are asking congregational members to make is too much, too big, too audacious, to frightening, we simply don’t ask, and they simply wouldn’t do it anyway. Let’s accept that reality and quit fighting it. Then, perhaps, we can make some progress.

You know the old joke, “Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time.” OK, it’s not funny, but it is true. The same strategy holds true for inviting. It’s just too much for most people to risk or try. So how about breaking it down into bite-size chunks that people actually can do? Here’s the way we’re doing it in my congregation. See if something along these lines might work for you.

Month 1: We ask people to use the phrase “my church” in a conversation with one person each week. Really simple. “Just go two blocks past my church and you’ll see the grocery store.” “No, I can’t go camping this weekend; I’ve already made plans to be at my church.” “Yes, I saw the sunset last night. The view from my church  was amazing!” Just one person, one time each week during the month. Have them make up scenarios and practice with each other before worship on Sundays.

We purchased some promotional items with our church logo on them to aid in these conversations. Cloth grocery totes, string packs, water bottles, etc. Things that people will have with them in public. They aren’t all that expensive and you can pretty easily recoup the expense by selling them to your members at a reasonable price. So when you go to the bank, the bank teller may well ask, “What a handy back pack. Where’d you get that?” And we would answer, “I got this at (all together, now) my church.

Month 2: We ask people to consider one word or phrase that describes our church well. Then use that word to finish the phrase, “my church is _____.” Again, do this in conversation with one person per week during the month. “My church is struggling with that very issue.” “School violence? My church is hosting a forum about that next month.” “That’s a hard situation. I’ve found my church is very supportive in difficult times.”

When people are watching for opportunities to do these quick, relatively small steps toward invitation, it’s amazing how many opportunities there suddenly are to take them. Ask them to share their stories with each other of their experiences. You can even award prizes for the funniest, the most awkward, the most creative, etc. Make this fun, but keep it in front of them.

Month 3: We ask people to think about one thing our congregation does very well. Perhaps it’s children’s ministry, education, music, social activism, or making the parking lot available for ride-sharing. Then use that to finish the phrase, “My church is really good at _____.” Again, one time per week to one person in a conversation. By now, some of them are getting the hang of this. A few might even be eager! Let them roll with it. That enthusiasm can become contagious. Encourage them to practice on each other and share their impressions of what their church is good at. This can feed into the motivational part covered in the previous post.

Month 4: We ask people to invite one person to check out something in which our church is involved. “Check out our volunteer day at the food pantry.” “Check out my church’s Alcoholics Anonymous Group.” “Check out the hiking trip my church is sponsoring.” This is all done in appropriate conversations when an opening presents itself. People are understanding the organic nature of these statements, and that they shouldn’t be forced or manipulated. By this time, people are actually seeing appropriate openings and are better able to bring up their church in a way that is natural and not off-putting.

Month 5: We ask people to invite someone to come to worship with them. This seems to be the most frightening invitation for many to make. But when broken into bite-size pieces, it can be attained.

Worship attendance isn’t necessarily the most important invitation, but it seems to be the hardest—leaving people feeling the most vulnerable. So we include it. If folks can invite to worship, they can make appropriate invitations to pretty much anything.

Now the question becomes, “what happens when our folks start inviting others to worship? How will these people be received? Will it be worth their time?” That, my friends, is the next installment of this invitational series. I invite your comments and partnership along the journey.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition, faith practices | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

We Will No Longer Be A Welcoming Church, Pt. 2: The Motivation!

Last week, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in that Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases—this post is the first of those three: Motivation for Inviting.

The fact is that you can encourage, threaten, explain, and even manipulate all you want. But if people aren’t motivated to invite others, it pretty much isn’t going to happen. Especially when it comes to church, because—let’s face it—we’ve done a poor job of making the church a desirable (much less helpful) community of which to be a part. My congregational folks know it and so do yours. That’s why they rarely invite. Isn’t there a statistic somewhere that says the average mainline person invites someone to worship once every fourteen years? There are reasons for that! Yes, our folks are happy to welcome new people if they happen to show up at church, but the vast majority of people in our congregations just aren’t motivated to invite others.

We can work really hard to try to get people to invite anyway—attempting to explain that a lot of people actually are open to coming to a church if invited (there are statistics on that too; again, not the point). But they aren’t going to go for it. Probably just like you, we’ve worked that angle too. Folks aren’t willing to take that risk. To me, that approach has, by and large, been a waste of time.

So rather than continue to push water uphill, we are going to try a different approach. We will simply raise the motivation to invite above the reluctance to invite. Sounds simple, right? Here are some ways we are attempting this:

Discover Your Ministries.

My congregation is not a large one. In my denomination we are pretty much a medium sized church. And yet, even in a place where people think they know everyone and everything that goes on, we find that no one knows all the ministry that actually is happening through our congregation. It’s surprising, actually. It turns out that lots of people in our church are doing some pretty exciting things—and hardly anyone knows about it. Sure, there’s all the normal (and wonderful!) things that are in the monthly newsletter: the food pantry drive, the youth mission trip to Tijuana (BTW, watch for a future blog post on why calling these trips “mission trips” does a huge disservice to our theology and purpose as church!), and the dedicated crew that works with Habitat for Humanity. But when you take the time to listen, people in our churches are living their faith in the broader community in amazing ways! Find those hidden gems; the reign of God is being revealed in ways that haven’t had much press. So, we are discovering these ministries and finding ways to highlight them. Awareness of what we, collectively, are actually doing is a must in order to be motivated to invite. Who knows, in a conversation with a friend, you may discover that an already existing ministry in your church actually would benefit them.

Articulate the Passion.

We are asking people in our congregation what they love about it. We are videoing any number of people asking that question and will be using our social media sites, as well as other ways, to share the answers. There are people who are committed to your congregation, right? Find out why! Give them an opportunity to say it out loud—let them articulate their passion. Helping people vocalize their love for their church not only concretizes those reasons in their own minds, but gives them good practice in saying it out loud. Young, old, male, female, straight-laced, free-spirited, etc.—the more diverse you can make the answers, the bigger a picture of the giftedness of your congregation will be revealed. Again, use whatever means you can think of to highlight these things that make your congregation special. Write them up, make posters, presentations, put them on your web page, and more. It is important that all these reasons for being part of your congregation be known to as many as possible. Enthusiasm is contagious. Let it work for you!

Go Public.

One of the big surprises as this process unfolds is that it is becoming apparent that our church is actually more than any of us thought. Instead of being a small, typical, 50-year-old mainline church, we are closer to being a well-kept secret gold mine. So we are making our giftedness public. Sure, we have a web site and a Facebook page. But they are pretty underutilized. We are making social media our best friend. You’d be surprised how many 80 year olds have a Facebook account! So we are asking all our ministry leaders to take photos and/or videos of their ministry in action (or inaction), and post them on our congregation’s Facebook page. Most people have a cell phone with a camera on it, encourage them to use it! We have someone monitoring these posts just to make sure that everything up there is more or less appropriate (we are getting written parental permission for kids’ pictures to be on our social media sites), but pretty much anything goes. We are also asking members to encourage their Facebook friends to “like” our congregation’s page. We’re considering having a “1,000 new likes in the next month” or something like that.

The reason for all this social media stuff is partly about getting helpful information about our church into a public arena. But just as importantly, it’s about getting our own members to be more aware of all that is happening in their own church! The Holy Spirit is at work among us in ways we may not see. Social media is accessible, instant, and already utilized by many people in our congregations. And even if you discover there aren’t that many on Facebook (though you’ll be surprised how many are), teach them how to use it. I needed someone to show me how to post pictures to the church social media sites (and need periodic re-training), but any twelve year old in your church can teach that. And what a wonderful way to help younger members understand that they have something valuable to offer. The technology they take for granted is important to the rest of the church! While you’re at it, have that twelve year old link your church’s web page, Facebook page (start one today!), and Twitter account (start that one too!).

Social media is great for instant communication, connection, and information. But don’t stop there. Collect all the pictures and videos that people are taking and put together PowerPoint presentations to show after worship on several Sundays. Emphasize different aspects, e.g., “why I love my church” one week, “little known ministries we do in our world” another week, and “one thing I’ve learned about my church in the last month” on another week. The more people know about their church, the more amazed they are and excited they become. And the more excited they become, the more motivated they are, perhaps, to invite someone to experience the faith community they love.

The basis of our identity as people of God is our new life given to us in Jesus Christ. When we quit pushing that on others and simply “be” that through caring relationships with others, we reveal the love of God. And who knows? Those that are invited might reveal something about God that we didn’t know before. Oh, but wait. Remember? This isn’t about how the church can benefit, but how our neighbors can. Jesus Christ is alive and creating new life in the world—including in our congregations. How life-giving it is when we notice that, articulate that, and thereby are motivated to share that.

The next post will be about “Inviting in Bite-Sized Chunks.” In the meantime, join the journey. Post comments, questions, and insights. Let’s share this together.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition, medium church, missional, small church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

We Will No Longer be a Welcoming Church

We’ve decided to quit being a welcoming church. No kidding. We’re giving it up. It won’t be easy, but we’re committed to it. We’ll have to do it in stages, easing our folks into it step by step. We’ll have to deal with the fear of something new, the challenge of venturing into the unknown. But we’ll do it. It will take motivation, leadership, and constant reminders. But most importantly, it will take total commitment in embracing a new focus.

Like so many churches, we’ve sunk an amazing amount of time and energy into becoming a welcoming church. We changed worship styles, we trained greeters and ushers, we wore name tags, we percolated coffee, we went to workshops on hospitality, we put our friendliest people in the most prominent places on Sunday mornings. But we’ve realized we’ve been misplacing our emphasis. So we’re no longer going to do it.

Here’s what we’re doing instead. We are becoming an Inviting Church. That’s different. You see, “welcoming” from a missional perspective is passive. It denotes waiting for visitors and guests to drop by. When they do, we attempt treat them very well and do everything possible to make them comfortable. We’ll be willing to change who we are. We’ll follow particular formats that have proven to be more welcoming to new people. We’ll do whatever it takes to have them come back the next Sunday, even if they shouldn’t. Welcoming is about us, not about them.

“Inviting,” however, is different. That means we leave the comfort of our congregational home-court advantage. The main activity doesn’t happen in our worship space when people drop in, but in the neighborhood when we go out. It isn’t so much welcoming them into our place, but going out into their place and meeting them there.

Even that warrants a significant caveat. This is not just another gimmick to get people into the church. The foundation of this isn’t an attempt to bolster declining membership rolls and make a better parochial report to the bishop. No, it goes much deeper than that. It starts with who God has called us to be as church. It involves discovering our gifts and purpose. And it mandates joining God at work in the world. This isn’t about getting the world into God’s church; it’s about getting the church into God’s world.

If you’ve read any postings on this blog before, you know that God’s mission is what we are to be about. Everything comes from that—including the identity of the church. We exist as church only because God has a mission. Our purpose, our very identity, is called forth out of God’s loving care and redemptive activity in creation. We are steeped in God’s mission. We are drenched through baptism into this essential character of God. God is at work in the world, and creates, calls, and equips the church specifically for that work.

Each congregation has a purpose within God’s mission. Each congregation has particular gifts. Each congregation reveals the life-giving reign of God in unique ways. No congregation is everything to everyone. But every congregation is something to someone. Who can know God through your worship style? Who can experience forgiveness and grace through your congregational community? Who needs the gifts you have to offer? Who can offer gifts you need? Knowing those things, when in conversation over the backyard fence about their pain in losing a loved one, it would be natural then to invite that neighbor to your congregation’s grief support group that has made such a difference for many others. When in the employee lunch room chatting about the pressures of our jobs, it would fit to invite that co-worker to your congregation’s spiritual direction group for professionals. When sharing the struggles of parenthood with a friend while waiting for your kids to come out of school, it would make sense to invite their whole family to your cross-generational faith development where you have gained so much guidance from other parents. While paying for a car repair, your long-time mechanic lets slip that she has lost her faith, it would easily flow for you to invite her to join you (and all the other doubters who will gather this Sunday) in worship.

Welcoming involves hoping whoever happens to find you will join. Inviting involves sharing God’s specific gifts—made real in your congregation—in the world.

Based on a council study of the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath (Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc., N.Y. Copyright © 2010 by Chip Heath and Dan Heath) http://www.amazon.com/Switch-Change-Things-When-Hard, my congregation is going about this transition from being welcoming to becoming inviting in three specific ways. One leadership team is taking the lead for each portion. Each of these three approaches will be the topic of an upcoming post on this blog. As a preview, however, they are: motivating people to invite, taking on invitation in bite-size pieces, and changing the inviting environment. We aren’t sure what the final results will be, but we’re excited to find out. Join us on this journey as we jump off the cliff and (hopefully) learn to fly. Please offer feedback, ideas, and help along the way.

Categories: church growth, Church in Transition, missional | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 149 Comments

Insights into the Election of a Bishop: Part 3, “Called Beyond My Comfort–Again”

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, this series of three posts are 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 1 here and Part 2 here.

At the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly, almost 500 voting members gathered, sent from each congregation in the 4+ state territory that comprises this synod. The big agenda item was the election of a new bishop as our current bishop, Allan Bjornberg, was retiring after 18 years of faithful service in that office.

The first ballot was a nominating ballot. All of the pre-nominated 17 were, in fact, nominated. Myself included. At this point nominations were closed, and one of the 24 people who accepted this nomination would be called as the RMS bishop.

The second ballot required voting members to vote for one of these 24. The top seven would move on to the third ballot and would be asked to address the assembly the next day. When the votes were tallied, there was a tie for seventh place, therefore the top eight would actually move on to the third ballot. Yours truly was in ninth place, one vote behind seven/eight.

I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. And yet, I swear, at the moment it sank in that I was out of the running, the colors in that large conference room became brighter. Kind of like the allergy medicine commercial on TV where the hazy filter is peeled away to reveal how bright things can be. My breathing became noticeably deeper. I felt like I had suddenly lost ten pounds. And I was aware that anytime I wasn’t conscious of it, I was smiling. I think I actually skipped out of the assembly gathering for the dinner break.

That night I slept like a rock for the first time in months. Finally, this ordeal was over for me. The eight candidates remaining were all solid, wonderful, faithful people. And none of them were me. Whew. As far as my participation was concerned, this process was finished. I had been faithful to the leading of the Holy Spirit, learned some things, and moved past some personal obstacles. Thank you Jesus. Let’s elect a bishop, finish up the assembly, and go home.

The Rev. Jim Gonia was elected on the fifth ballot. My experience of his election was deep, spiritual, and moving. It seemed that the Holy Spirit had truly worked through this gathering of amazingly diverse Lutherans who gathered from the ranches of Wyoming; the urban centers of Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Colorado Springs; the border community of El Paso, and many other communities—large and small—that make up the territory of the Rocky Mountain Synod. I was taken aback at the powerful effect his election had on me. This person had truly been called by God to this office. It was a win/win. God had called someone who had responded, and it wasn’t me.

As I gathered one evening with a few other colleagues toward the end of this election process, one of them asked that since I was out of the running, what I was going to do now. “What do you mean?” I asked. “It seems self-evident. I’m out of the running. I don’t do anything.” No, this colleague answered. It’s not over. It’s just beginning. You were a viable candidate for bishop of this synod. Like it or not, Rob, you owe it to this church to speak out. Apparently, you have something to say that this synod wants to hear.

In my 27 years of ordained ministry, I think I’ve spoken into a microphone at a synod assembly once. Not my forte, not my comfort zone, not my desire. I’ve not expressed any aspiration to serve on any synod-wide committee, council, or task force. Although I allowed myself to be nominated for and subsequently elected to the synod’s Mission Outreach Board some years ago, I’ve never promoted that position or publicized my work there. I work as a team with my fellow board members, learning, speaking at meetings when necessary, and (as is so often my style) quietly influencing when I know something that’s relevant to the agenda or when I believe something ought to be on the agenda. I rarely “speak out” at synod assemblies, board meetings, or anywhere else outside of the pulpit.

Now I wonder, perhaps, if I’m being called to move beyond my own comfort again. If the demon that has kept me relatively silent for fear of ridicule has been exorcized (see part two of this blog series), then who knows what God will now call me to do and/or say? I am passionate about this church, I see God at work in and through us. I have the background, education, and experience to have a voice. I believe with all that is within me that the purpose of the church is not to do church, but to be the church God has called and gathered. And to be that church in the world. I can lead my congregation in living that out through new and fuller means. I can articulate that in any number of ways. I can imagine that in even more ways. Perhaps I can use a new-found voice to be more effective in encouraging and challenging others to be missional church as well.

Which is why this blog exists and how this series fits into it.

And that, my dear reader, is how God has used this bishop election in ways that I never could have imagined. Soli Deo Gloria!

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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

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