About This Blog: Being a Pastor

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: being a pastor.

As I wrote earlier, I’m taking on a new adventure as the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa. I’ve been part of the United Church of Christ my whole life. I graduated from seminary more than a decade ago. I’ve worked and volunteered in the church — and in church-related organizations — for years. But this is my first time being the pastor for a congregation.

That means that I’m figuring some things out. What kinds of schedules work? How should I manage writing a sermon every week (and more during holiday weeks)? How can and should administration work in a congregationalist setting? And so on.

Part of what this blog is about is sharing my experiences being and becoming a pastor. I hope that this will give some insight into the life of your pastor, and I hope it will give some other pastors some ideas about what might work for them. I’m not going to pretend that I know everything — I’m barely going to pretend that I know anything — but I hope I can share what I’m learning and that my experience can be fruitful for others.

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

About This Blog: Fundraising and Communications

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: fundraising and communications.

I’ve been a nonprofit development professional for more than a decade. I’ve worked for institutions of higher education and for social service agencies. I’ve volunteered and consulted for churches. I’ve done everything from annual fundraising campaigns to capital campaigns to designing websites and newsletters. For over ten years, I’ve lived and breathed development work.

I’ve also been part of the church — and, specifically, part of the United Church of Christ — for my entire life. And, to be blunt, we aren’t very good at this work. Churches from every part of the political and theological spectrum are struggling with their fundraising and communications. Stewardship campaigns are ineffective, websites are outdated, and very few congregations are innovating when it comes to engaging their constituencies. These problems aren’t the only cause of shrinking churches and budget struggles, but they’re certain one of those causes.

Part of what this blog is about is sharing best practices — practices that have been honed in the bigger nonprofit sector — with the mainline church. We can be responsibly and faithful stewards of the gifts that have been shared with us. And we can use those gifts to share the good news with more people.

About This Blog: Charity

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: charity.

In 2012 or so, my parents sent me a copy of Robert Lupton’s book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It). It was my introduction to a movement — let’s call them ‘charity skeptics’ — that believes that charity is harmful. As Lupton describes it, America rejected the idea of doing for others what they can, or should be able to, do for themselves when welfare reform passed; but, through private charity, we continue to perpetuate a welfare system that creates dependency, erodes the work ethic, and cannot alleviate poverty. The solution to this problem is dramatically reducing charity in favor of a different approach that favors employment, lending, and investing.1Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 22, 128 And, of course, Lupton is not alone in this. Thought leaders like Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert, Ruby Payne, Steve Rothschild, and Dan Pallotta all make similar or complementary arguments. And a lot of the work of charity skepticism is aimed specifically at churches and Christian nonprofits.

As a pastor and a nonprofit development professional, I’ve spent the last decade or so studying the history, philosophy, theology, and effectiveness of charity, philanthropy, and other forms of giving. And the simple fact is that while charity skeptics may have some good points, and while some alternatives to traditional charity (like microloans) might be effective, the overall thrust of the skeptical argument is wrong. Charity is a cornerstone of Christian theology; charity is the foundation of the alternative social order that the Christian church embodies; and charity works.

I’m working on another, bigger project about charity and charity skepticism. But part of what this blog is about is what charity is and why it matters, as well as where (and maybe sometimes why) charity skeptics go wrong.

Footnotes   [ + ]

People I Listen To: Whiting Wongs with Dan Harmon and Jessica Gao

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s podcast I listen to is Whiting Wongs with Dan Harmon and Jessica Gao.

Race has been a major driver in many aspects of American life — far more than we tend to think — for all of American history. A famous political example is the relationship between the three-fifths clause of the Constitution and the electoral collage. The three-fifths clause let states count three-fifths of the slaves who lived there for the purposes of representation. Since those slaves couldn’t vote — and no white person cared about their opinion — that basically amplified the voice of every white person in those states. While that obviously applied to the House of Representatives, where the representation of each state is determined by population, the electoral college ensured that it also applied to presidential elections. The electoral college is a system that doesn’t make sense unless you look at it through the lens of the role of race in American history.

Entertainment is another area where race is an important driver. As a white person, it’s easy for me to ignore the lack of diversity in my entertainment diet. But the fact is that the American media landscape is dominated by white people. In addition to that, people of color — and women, and LGBTQ folks, and others — are often erased from their own stories. It’s common to have a character of color ‘whitewashed’: played or voiced (in the case of animation) by a white person.

In Whiting Wongs, Dan Harmon (CommunityRick and Morty) and Jessica Gao (Rick and MortySilicon Valley) take on race in media. Everything from diversity in the writers’ room to the importance of seeing people like you on television to Dan’s hatred of sharks gets attention. And these topics get attention with humor, honesty, vulnerability, and grace.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

A New Adventure (and Refocusing the Blog)

For the last five-and-a-half years (plus a bit), I’ve been the church relations associate at Back Bay Mission, a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. Now I’m preparing to move on to a new adventure. Soon, I’ll have my first day as pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa.

I’ll be honest. I’m both excited and nervous to take on my first pastoral position. There are many parts of the work of a pastor that I love, and there are many aspects of this congregation that I think I’ll love. At the same time, there’s no way to know exactly what to expect. There are going to bumps and bruises and the people of this community and I learn to be together as a church. But I’m looking forward to this new thing. I’m excited to see where the spirit will take us.

I’m also going to miss Back Bay Mission. I will miss visiting churches across the United States. I will miss board meetings at the Mission. I will miss the day to day work of fundraising. I will miss friends and colleagues who are working every day to strengthen neighborhoods, seek justice, and transform lives.

This is a big change… and I’m glad to be making it.

This transition also means that some changes will be coming to the blog. For example, I hope that First Congregational will have a website where I can post my sermons and some other ‘churchy’ musings. I may link to that content from here, I may crosspost that content, but content and schedules will change.

One of the things I’m hoping to do is refocus this blog. When I started this version of the blog in December of 2015, I was focused on defending charity from its detractors. Over the last couple of years, I’ve added posts about fundraising, politics, and other topics. I’m glad I did, and I don’t regret anything I’ve written. But it’s time to get back to the basics.

Going forward, I’m going to focus this blog on three subjects:

  • Charity (including the history, philosophy, and theology of charity)
  • Fundraising, stewardship, and communications for churches
  • Some ‘being a pastor’ topics like scheduling and energy management

Of course, I’ll talk about some other things, too. That’s just what I’m planning on spending the most time on.

I hope you’ll join me.

Bigger Than You Think

This sermon was delivered at Peace Lutheran ELCA in Port Byron, Illinois on February 4, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Mark 1:26-39 and Isaiah 40:21-31.

Today’s gospel reading is a strange little episode… or maybe even a set of episodes. It’s transition after transition after transition.

Not long ago, John the Baptist was arrested, and Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. As he was traveling by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers fishing — Simon and Andrew — and he called them to follow him. And they did.

And it isn’t important to the story or this sermon, but Simon is another name for Peter. Jesus was calling the man who would hold the keys to the kingdom.

As Jesus, Simon, and Andrew continued along the Sea of Galilee, they saw two other brothers mending nets — James and John — and Jesus called them to follow him. And they did.

And they all went to Capernaum, where Jesus taught in the synagogue and cast our demons.

And then we’re to today’s reading. At a dizzying pace, the group goes to Simon’s house, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, they bring many sick people to the house, Jesus heals them, Jesus goes to a quiet place to pray, Simon and the others find him, and they head out to preach in the neighboring towns. Mark is a gospel that’s well-known for being in a hurry to get to the next thing. Even for Mark, the pacing here it a little ridiculous.

The hurry hides so much. Let’s slow down a little. Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s focus.

Jesus and his new disciples go to Simon’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. We don’t know how serious her illness is. We don’t know how long she’s had it. But she’s suffering. And it’s bad enough that the people in the house — Simon’s family — tell Jesus right away. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and heals her. And she immediately begins serving her son-in-law and his brother and these three strangers they’ve brought home.

And then, at sunset, the people of Capernaum bring everyone who is sick or possessed by demons to Simon’s house. And the whole city is gathered around the door.

What started with one person — what started with Simon’s mother-in-law — ends with the whole city at the door.

And that should feel familiar. Again and again, we have to learn that so many things that we want to dismiss as isolated incidents — one person who is sick, one person who is haunted by demons — are merely the tips of icebergs. It’s almost never just Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost always an entire city.

If you’ve been following the news lately, you know at least some of the details of what I’m about to tell you. In September 2016, a former gymnast named Rachael Denhollander made a public accusation against Larry Nassar. At the time, Nassar was a doctor, a professor at Michigan State University, and the team physician for the United States Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Team. Denhollander accused Nassar of molesting her when she was a fifteen year old gymnast in Michigan.

She was not the first person to accuse Nassar. She was just the first one who people listened to.

In November of this year, Nassar pled guilty to seven counts. A couple of weeks ago, 156 women and family members gave victim impact statements at his sentencing. What began with one woman ended with one hundred and fifty-six people.

It’s almost never just Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost always an entire city.

And it isn’t just Larry Nassar and Rachael Denhollander. Over the last few years, men and women have made accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Louis C.K. Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, and countless others. And those are just the famous people.

It’s almost never just Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost always an entire city.

And it isn’t just sexual misconduct. Turn on the news and see one story about someone who came to this country as a child being deported…

…or a teenager dealing with bullying…

…or a family losing their house to a fire…

…and there are dozens or hundreds or thousands more that you don’t see.

It’s almost never just Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost always an entire city.

And in the face of that, it’s easy to lose hope. It’s easy to think that it’s too much. It’s easy to think that we can never do enough. It’s easy to think that we should go along to get along.

It’s easy to believe that if we peeled back the layers of our world, we would find nothing but a rotten core.

It’s easy to live as though we can just avert our eyes and stay in the house and distract ourselves and act as though nothing’s wrong. After all, Simon’s mother-in-law is up and about. We can just act like no one’s knocking at the door.

It’s easy to live as though we can just avert our eyes and stay in the house and distract ourselves and act as though nothing’s wrong... We can just act like no one’s knocking at the door. Click To Tweet

But have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? Our God is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. Our God does not faint or grow weary. Our God’s understanding is unsearchable.

Our God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

In the face of the evils of the world, it can feel like we alone in the house, hearing — straining not to hear, but hearing nonetheless — the knocking of the city at the door. And I want to own that feeling. That feeling is important. That feeling matters. There are times when we do not have the energy to deal with the city. There are times when we need to practice self-care and find a deserted place and pray.

But it is also true that when we set out to heal the sick and cast out demons, God is with us. When we set out to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and welcome to the stranger, God is with us. When we set out to give clothing to the naked, care to the sick, companionship to the imprisoned, God is with us.

When we set out to comfort the victims of abuse, God is with us.

When we set out to redeem the perpetrators of abuse, God is with us.

And as much as we might feel beat down and broken and just plain tired sometimes, God does not faint or grow weary. No. God gives power to the faint. God strengthens the powerless.

This week — and if not this week, then this month; if not this month, then this year — you’re going to be somewhere and you’re going to hear a story. Maybe someone will tell it to you. Maybe you’ll overhear it. Maybe it will be given to you second-hand. It will be a story about someone who needs your help and comfort.

And that story will demand something of you.

Now, you might be tired; you might be run down; you might be busy mending nets. You might have to go out to a deserted place to pray. But that story will find you. And that story will demand something of you.

That story will be Jesus calling you to follow him. And the challenges of doing that will be bigger than you think. The challenges of doing that will be preaching and healing and casting our demons. The challenges of doing that will be persecution and denial and crucifixion. The challenges of doing that will be transformation and resurrection and eternal life.

But remember this…

When Rachael Denhollander made her accusation against Larry Nassar, she couldn’t have known how many people he had hurt. Maybe all she could see was USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University and a host of challenges that were bigger than she thought. But when she stood in a courtroom to tell her story, 155 women and family members stood with her. What began with one woman ended with one hundred and fifty-six people.

And God was with them.

When Christ calls you, your friends and neighbors in the church will stand with you. When Christ calls you, God will be with you. And I have faith that, in the face of challenges that are bigger than you think, God will give you power when you are faint and strength when you are powerless.

Because it turns out that, even though the challenges of following Jesus — of healing and feeding and welcoming and giving and caring — are usually bigger than we think, God is bigger than we think, too.

Because it turns out that, even though the challenges of following Jesus — of healing and feeding and welcoming and giving and caring — are usually bigger than we think, God is bigger than we think, too. Click To Tweet

And that is good news.