Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What heaven has in store..

Eternal rewards for Muslims might include dates, pomegranates, non sin-inducing wine, and everlasting peace. Norse pagans look forward to freshly slaughtered boar and daily warrior fights. Mahayana Buddhists anticipate the music of birds, and trees hung with precious jewels.

Greek polytheists may find eternal sunshine, music, drinks, singing, dancing, and wrestling. Christians envision eternal life and becoming Godlike. Egyptian polytheists, more down home in taste, hope for feasts, boating, and checkers.

From Lapham's Quarterly, Winter 2010

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Purloined letters...

Shoplifting at book stores is on the rise. Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, said the most frequently stolen book is the Bible. "Some people think the word of God should be free," he said.

Bibles are even snatched at the Parable Christian Bookstore in Springfield, Oregon, despite the fact that if someone asks for a Bible, they will be given one free.

The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Your church's face to the world...

This sign says, "The end of your search for a friendly church." There you have it. Y'all come in.

There's a church near where I live that has a sign with interchangeable letters. For the past six months, that sign has read, "Welcome Rivendell College." It is such a sad sign, reflecting little pride in what the church has to offer passersby.

Church signs can be welcoming and engaging, or downright unfriendly. The letters on many signs are too small to read from the street. An effective sign makes it easy for visitors to figure out when they need to show up.

My favorite church sign dates back to 2003. In the baseball playoffs, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs were still in the running for the World Series. A church sign read, "Red Sox vs. Cubs. There is a God." I went to church there the very next Sunday.

Effective ministry...

In his book, The Habits of Highly Effective Churches, George Barna writes, "Effective ministry fosters significant and continual changes in how people live. When your church consistently facilitates a personal metamorphosis among its people, it is operating in the realm of effectiveness."

This is not often the case. Clergy and lay leaders usually do not believe they can challenge the way church members lead their daily lives. In turn, most congregants do not view the church as having any authority over them in this regard.

Something for everyone...

"Gradually, a plan took shape. Our goal was to transform our community. The rough idea included the significance of lay ministry, as well as the expectation that each church member would find a place of service."

Ah, such a simple yet profound idea.

Sue Mallory, from The Equipping Church

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An essential office function...

A minister recently said he was distressed because a letter from a parishioner went unnoticed. The parishioner was concerned about an issue at church, and upset that the minister had not responded.

Office staff should open and date-stamp all correspondence, including mail to the minister, unless it is marked personal or confidential. If mail is personal or confidential, office staff should date-stamp the envelope and notify the minister immediately.

Opening and date-stamping mail is a common practice in nonprofit and business entities, ranging in size from very small to extremely large. This is an important office policy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A capital idea...

I encourage clergy to ask congregants to give to the church's outreach efforts the same amount of money they spend on holiday gifts. This helps people of all generations give and receive in correct proportion.

This request to give does not require a board vote or a congregational meeting. This idea can be introduced at any time during the holiday season, and even beyond.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Presbyterian follies...

Some Presbyterians don't believe in Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and thus maintain when Adam and Eve were created, they were immediately issued the regulation church tie and denominational handbag.

Also, a poll found there are more Americans (3.7 million) who believe they have been abducted by aliens than there are Presbyterians (2.5 million), so someone suggested that the General Assembly appoint a committee to study the aliens' methods.

Finally, some Presbyterians have been know to rearrange books on a shelf so all the colors of the spines will be complimentary.

Bob Reed, from How to Survive Being a Presbyterian

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The First Pulpit project...

This idea is just waiting to happen. I believe about two percent of churches could go through a process of discernment and take on a special ministry - to call only newly-graduated seminarians for their very first pulpit, for a period of no longer than five years, and to ensure that minister has a positive experience.

The Lilly Foundation funds a similar program, but seminarians are placed in large congregations, in a multi-staff environment. Smaller churches with only a sole pastor could play this role equally well. The ideal church is likely to be 125-175 at Sunday worship, not riven by conflict, generally healthy, but looking for a new and engaging role or purpose.

A tricky topic...

There was a sermon to prepare. There always was; and the one for this Sunday the minister was going to call, "On the Perils of Personal Vanity." A tricky topic, requiring discretion, as he was hoping with its teaching to head off a crisis that loomed on the ecclesiastical horizon regarding the purchase of a new organ.

The decision as to whether the church needed a new organ took on some significance; the organist, Doris Austin, was ready to view any opposition as an assault on her personal character - a stance irritating to those who had a natural hesitancy toward any change. Reverend Caskey was opposed to the organ, but said nothing publicly, only tried through his preaching to make people think.

Elizabeth Strout, from her novel Abide With Me

A new Sunday School curricula?

According to the Nielsen Group, children today between the ages of 2-5 view television, video games, and other forms of media about 33 hours each week. For children ages 6-11, that figure is about 28 hours per week.

Author and family therapist Mary Pipher once wrote, "Television teaches children values far more effectively than any church." A frightening thought. Can the church's religious education programs possibly address this issue?

Thanks to The Christian Century, December 15, 2009 issue.

Organizational affiliations are casual for many individuals, and a significant number of Christians view the church as just one more affiliation. This seems to be the only possible explanation for the high percentage of North American adults who nominally claim to be Christian, but whose beliefs have little or no power to shape their lives, let alone add value or significance to their communities.

Michael W. Foss, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church

Buyer's market religion?

The church has lost its ability to be a disciplined community because we're now, religiously, in a buyer's market. Christianity has to bill itself as very good for your self-realization, and that's killing us because we're not very good for your self-realization. We're good for your salvation, which is not the same thing.

Theologian Stanley Hauwerwaus, when asked about the church's lack of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. From The Christian Century, December 15, 2009.

The suspense of it all...

The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light, and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners entirely, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand.

The silence in the church is deafening because everyone is listening to it. Everyone is listening, including himself. Everyone knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?

Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Good place to meet a girl...

My parents' lives were shaped and sheltered by the Lutheran church and the intensely ordered culture of the near-north side of St. Louis. We had an understanding, my parents and I, that one could do no more nobly with one's life than to be a pastor.

My father met my mother by means of one of the great pickup lines of their era. After a social at the church, he followed her down St. Louis Avenue along the park to the streetcar stop. When he caught up to her, he said with the savoir-fare of a Lutheran Cary Grant, "Say, do you go to movies during Lent?"

Richard Lischer, Open Secrets

The satisfaction business...

People often harbor a basic misunderstanding about churches. They sometimes come into church and sit down in the same manner as they enter restaurants and performance halls; like spectators coming to enjoy what is being prepared for them, what is served up for their senses. Churches have adopted a satisfaction approach to their work, and this has not served them well.

As a result, most Americans have more experience being catered to than with the complex requirements of being a valued participant in a community of faith. Clubs, resorts, salons, and day spas are in the satisfaction business. Churches are not. Is that clear?

Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn, Living a Call: Ministers and Congregations Together

Strength for the journey...

A chronic form of ill health in the church is what we might call the trivialization of the church. It is nice, it is friendly, and on occasion it is
even touching. But in the end, nothing much is at stake. Nothing of ultimate significance is evident in the church's proclamation, faith, and life.

A healthy congregation is one where something important is at stake; where words and actions do matter; where lives are changed, healed, redirected to positive paths, and made new. Healthy congregations have steady, humble members who believe that what they are doing in and as the church matters, and matters a great deal. Otherwise, why bother?

Anthony Robinson, What's Theology Got To Do With It?

Lots of folks...

A recent survey revealed that 96 percent of Americans believe in God. We can explain this finding only when we grant that believing in God is rather easy. The concept of God can remain just that - a concept. This view of God is a "sacred blur."

We can refer to God and still sound theological, without severely compromising our worldliness or sophistication. Such a comfortably vague concept of God does not require much from us. We not only have little sense of what this God is like, but also few clues about what this God might expect of us.

Martin Copenhaver, To Begin at the Beginning: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An earlier era?

Back in the 1950s, the Big Three automakers offered Americans a choice between owning a Ford, a Chrysler, or a General Motors car. And so it was with religion -- the "big three" were being a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew. They held the franchise.

Since then, we've seen a period of hyper-evolution in automobiles, along with the meteoric rise of independent, nondenominational churches. Some are in small storefronts or in homes. Some have 15,000 members. But the message of too many traditional churches reflects the 1950s, along the lines of, "We like our Fords, Chevrolets, and Chryslers, and everyone else should like them, too."

Alas, many traditional churches tend to believe that those Toyotas, Hondas, and hybrid cars in the parking lot do not exist. Or if they do, surely they are of an inferior quality to what we offer.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Something old, something new...

New members, especially younger generations, prefer to create anew rather than perpetuate the old. Alas, most congregations, in Lyle Schaller's view, wish for young people to act like old people, and blend into the woodwork. But new members often feel like aliens when they join a standing committee of long-term members.

This raises an interesting question. In your church, is there anything new to do? If not, who decides what something new might be? A simple exercise is to ask congregants, "I wish our church could..." This may result in a very engaging list of ministries that newcomers might just claim as their own. Give those new members a long leash.

Exploring new territory...

The novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a memoir from a minister to his young son. The minister writes of his own father, who was also a minister. He said, "My father had nowhere to spend his courage, nowhere to feel it in himself. This was a great pity."

In churches today, do we help people find and spend their courage? In too many congregations, the tendency is to follow the familiar path. But St. John of the Cross wrote that those who seek God will follow a familiar path, but that path will end and there will be no path.

This is my hope for churches today, that they intentionally explore uncharted territory, and engage segments of the population previously unknown.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

From the pulpit...

Preaching deals with fundamental themes such as identity, anxiety, desire, fear, greed, love, and death. Preaching that does not respond to the needs of the human condition is irrelevant, no matter how scholarly, pious, or eloquent it may be.

Rev. Peter Gomes, Harvard University

Mark Twain and church...

It was pretty ornery preaching -- all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon. It did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.

From Huckelberry Finn

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pets R Us...

A group of people in England now offers a special service -- caring for pets whose owners have been taken to heaven in the rapture. For 70 British pounds, the group claims it will provide loving and long term care to pet owners who have been taken up. A franchise opportunity in the US?

What's the point?

We should above all be honest and ask ourselves what we gain from religion. What is the use of all the preaching, baptizing, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ playing, the community houses with or without motion picture equipment, the efforts to enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern day ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in relation to the righteousness of God?

Karl Barth, from The Voice of God and the Voice of Man, published in 1928.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Being a professional holy person..

In her stunning book, Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of her dedication to parish ministry. "Sixty-hour work weeks were normal, hovering close to eighty during the holidays. I felt like taking time off was a betrayal of divine trust. The demands of parish ministry cut me off from the resources that enabled me to do parish ministry. At night, I pecked God on the cheek the same way I pecked my husband, drying up inside for want of making love. One of the things that almost killed me was becoming a professional holy person."

No fun...

Sighed the minister, "In our church the ushers may or may not welcome visitors because they (the ushers) are often talking to their friends. Ushers do not help new people find places in the pews. During coffee hour, no one talks to visitors. The visitor's table is in an obscure corner, and rarely staffed. There's nothing of interest there anyway. I beat my head against the wall, but little of this seems to change."

Two lessons come to mind. The first is that many congregations behave this way, especially those with fewer than 150 at worship on Sunday. The second is, "Who's in charge?" Some group is responsible for perpetuating this institutional bad habit, a callous disregard for reaching out to those who are lost and lonely.

Friday, November 20, 2009

More souls in church..

In his book, 44 Ways to Increase Sunday Worship Attendance, Lyle Schaller says the top three ways are to increase the variety of speakers, change the music, and quicken the pace. Episcopal rites are unlikely to speed up, but most faiths are more flexible in liturgy. Professional musicians would be a sure draw. Paul Nixon, author of the book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, wrote that he'd often surprise church attendees on Sunday mornings with changes in worship format.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jonathan Edwards Is My Homeboy...

This phrase may be found on T-Shirts at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Minister Mark Driscoll is a proponent of the New Calvinism. Driscoll's theology goes as follows: "You are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time."

The New Calvinists reject forms of religion that focus on the self, and evidently delight in affirming God's ultimate power in salvation and providential work. From The Christian Century, December 1, 2009.

Focus on what is important...

I'm a fan of a theory called Critical Success Factors. This means that if churches do a few things extremely well, many other things will also be successful. To me, critical success factors are an extremely high quality worship service (especially music), giving away the Sunday offering to local charities that live out your values, and committing 10 percent of the operating budget to mission and outreach. If these efforts are successful, they will unite your congregation in common purpose.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What tomorrow might hold in store...

In his book, Activating the Passive Church, Lyle Schaller writes that all churches need to redefine themselves periodically, otherwise they tend to drift into a passive state. In general, the longer a congregation has been in existence and meeting in the same building, the more difficult this redefinition of role will be. Tradition, tradition...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Who gives?

The Barna Research Group found that certain groups are more likely to tithe than others. Those inclined to give 10 percent of their incomes include Evangelicals (24%), conservatives (12%), regular church attenders (12%), Pentecostal Christians (11%), and Republicans (10%)

Those least likely to tithe are under 25 years of age, atheists, agnostics, never-married adults, and downscale adults. Less than one percent of these groups tithe.


UCC minister Anthony Robinson often says that many churches behave as though nothing important is at stake. In my work as a parish consultant, I often find this to be the case. A companion to this notion is lack of urgency. In my experience, these are a deadly combination. The most difficult churches I've worked with are the most comfortable, the most settled in.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Sundays can be a bitch. I get up before daylight and head for the church. I open up the joint. I putter around and straighten hymnals. I make ready. I preach the sermon three or four times. I throw a nerf ball around the sanctuary while I get my mind straight. I do this many Sundays when I don't believe in God.

Baptist minster Gordon Atkinson, from his book, RealLivePreacher.com

Good words to you...

The 24 essays and 10 poems in this collection address the eternal oppositions of good and evil, virtue and vice, creation and destruction, the sorrows and the exaltations of the heart, mind, and soul; and the ceaseless quest for God.

From the preface to the book, The Best American Spiritual Writing of 2004, edited by Philip Zaleski.

A leap of faith..

During budget deliberations, when it appeared the budget would fall $25,000 short, the leadership of a congregation refused to cut back, and added a line item of "additional generosity." The church raised the money later in the year. If it's the right thing to do, the money will follow.

Orange jello

On one page there's a recipe for that molded salad of orange gelatin with stuffed green olives and shredded cabbage that has dogged my ministerial life, and which appears at my house whenever I so much as have a cold. There should be a law to prevent recipes for molded salad from appearing within twenty pages of any article having to do with religion.

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Evangelism R Us

Let's pretend you are someone who might be willing, in theory, at some point, possibly, to consider doing something that, while not evangelism-type evangelism, still could be in some way construed as a sort of sharing of hope. Kind of.

From A Shy Person's Guide to the Practice of Evangelism, by Steven Bonsey

Monday, November 9, 2009

Consider what you're paying for.

I urge readers not to stay at hotels that support the porno industry by having adult movies on TV. Ask before you make a reservation. Do not be swayed by the argument that "the market demands it." This is complete hogwash.


A recent survey indicated that 17 percent of Americans believe
Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Think about that one for a moment. Another 12 percent believe that Cain and Abel were friends of Jesus. Where does one start?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Most Important Ministry of All

Each day, countless people wake up feeling lost or lonely. They yearn for greater purpose and meaning in their lives.

Feeling this way, they sometimes come to church, hoping to find one kind of salvation or another. They may come reluctantly, or possibly even fearful. Going someplace where you don't know anyone can be scary.

All too often, first-time visitors have a negative experience. Current members often sit far away from visitors in the pews. Few members, if any, speak to visitors, even during coffee hour. If visitors experience loneliness on their first visit, they won't want a repeat performance.
Your church has lost a potential new member forever.

I can't tell you how many times people have said to me, "When I was new here, it was one person who made the difference, one person who said hello to me when I was a stranger.
I've never forgotten it."

Anyone can be that "one person who makes a difference," whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, or somewhere in between. Congregations truly wishing to make a difference in people's lives can demonstrate this by making the stranger feel welcome.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Window in the Minister’s Office Door?

Should the minister’s office door have a window or not?

Those in favor of windows claim that clergy are vulnerable to allegations of improper conduct behind closed doors, sometimes made by unstable parishioners. Once an accusation has been made, whether valid or not, it’s impossible to put that genie back in the bottle.

Those in favor of no windows suggest that parishioners in need of counseling desire privacy, and may not wish it known they are seeing the minister.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, but the subject does warrant discussion. Clergy and lay leaders will need to make their own judgment call on this one.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Give Away the Sunday Offering

The Sunday offering can be an extraordinarily powerful ministry. Committing the offering plate to those less fortunate beyond your own four walls ensures the congregation will be successful in its mission every time people gather together.

Church treasurers may blanch at this recommendation, concerned about losing that line item in the budget. They may claim vociferously that the church cannot afford to do this. Not to worry. Most congregations that give away the offering see a three to fivefold increase in plate contributions, and experience an increase in the annual pledge drive, as well. You will not rob Peter to pay Paul.

By Sunday offering, I mean the “loose offering.” This includes cash and checks that are not designated for other purposes, such as pledge payments.

I also recommend that a representative from the charity that receives the offering make an appearance to accept the money. This puts a human face on the congregation’s mission. One church gave the offering to a veteran’s home, and an 85-year old vet in his World War II uniform showed up to receive the money. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and no one was going to stand up and say the congregation should have kept that money for themselves.

Giving away the Sunday offering is just the right thing to do.

If children are present when the offering is received, it is a magical experience for them to see the collection plate overflow with money. What a wonderful example that is.

Two final points. First, if visitors show up on Sunday morning and the plate passes them with only a few one-dollar bills and some spare change in it, this reflects very poorly on your congregation. Second, most parishioners can put in $5, $10, or $20 on Sunday mornings and this will not affect the quality of their lives later in the week.

Please note: Church members who have already made their annual pledge do not get a free pass on the offering plate! This ministry is for everyone.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Publishing Sermon Titles in the Newsletter or on the Website is Not a Good idea. Except for Special Occasions.

Theologically conservative readers may be surprised that sermon titles are actually published in advance. Churchgoers of multiple faiths attend Sunday services regularly and have no idea of what the sermon will be about. And that is just fine with them.

Many ministers preach from the Lectionary, and their sermons are based on the lesson of the day. As one moves leftward along the theological spectrum, ministers rely less on Scripture and may preach about secular topics such as the environment, politics, or other topics of civil life.

Thus, liberal churchgoers often wish to know what the sermon will be about, and are accommodated by sermon titles that are published in the newsletter and on the website. This is not a good practice. Such a policy creates a “pick and choose” faith – I like that topic so I’ll be there, I don’t like that one, so I’ll stay home.

Published sermon titles can also discourage potential visitors from attending services. If church shoppers are seeking meaning and purpose in their lives, a sermon on the separation of church and state is likely to discourage them from attending -- forever. If the website stated, "Services at 9 and 11" they would probably show up.

Small miracles occur in church every Sunday, and do not depend solely on the sermon topic or the minister. People need to gather together regularly. Besides, coming to church and not knowing what is going to happen adds a bit of excitement to the routine.

The hitch in this scheme is churches whose members have become accustomed to knowing sermon titles in advance. Taking this away from them is a precarious business, not for the faint of heart. Who in your church could make such a decision?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why the Minister’s Day Off is a Myth

Ministers routinely work 50-60 hours a week, at all times of the day and night. If a parishioner passes away on Wednesday and a memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, that can add another 25 to 35 hours of time and effort, not to mention the emotional toll.

Then, said minister may be in the pulpit for two services on Sunday. Some church boards meet on Sunday evenings. This may total a 75-80 hour, highly stressful week. The minister then gets Monday off?

Methodist minister Bill Easum claimed that one day off did not allow him time to wind down, let alone gear up for another long week that lay ahead. Instead, he would sometimes work eight or nine days in a row, then take three consecutive days off.

This scheme may not be every minister’s cup of tea and would require some planning. But I think itís on option that clergy and lay leaders should explore.

Ministers (and their families) live in goldfish bowls, and are on-call to an extent that secular workers rarely are. Ministers are also more vulnerable to criticism about their job performance than most working professionals, especially in regard to being available to church members.

Most ministers I know work far more hours than their contracts call for. Rearranging days off for their professional and emotional well-being is well worth the slight inconvenience that some church members may experience.

How Not to Answer the Church Telephone

A recurring theme of this blog is whether church practices are decided with current or potential members in mind. Progressive churches, regardless of theology, weigh heavily toward the visitor or newcomer.

The outgoing message on your church’s phone is prime example. Most potential visitors call to find out the time of the Sunday service. This should come first.

Thus, your church’s outgoing message should be along the lines of:

You’ve reached Old First Church. Sunday services are at 9 and 11. We offer childcare up to age four, and Sunday school for kids and youth. Some people wear jeans and some wear their Sunday best. We’re a lively and engaging, multi-generational congregation that believes we're here for an important reason.

Come visit. You’ll be glad you did.

Everything else comes after this, such as, “Press 1 for directions on how to get here, Press 2 for office hours and a staff directory, Press 3 for building rentals, and Press 4 for whatever.”