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“I Have Plenty”

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As I sat in the middle of a tarp filled with donations of men’s short-sleeved T-shirts and collared shirts on Saturday morning with our 11-month old, I was overwhelmed with the way a community can make a difference. There were so many winter items gathered in order to help those who might not have enough to stay warm through the cold. I was already overwhelmed by the generosity of the two communities of faith with whom ministrieslab had partnered in order to collect and sort items for the distribution. This, I thought, is church. Individuals, nonprofits, and communities of faith all coming together to help those in their own community who needed items to help them stay warm. This is the gospel.

And I was feeling good about the work we had done to create partnerships to have a bigger impact by joining together. And I was feeling good about being there in the midst of need and being able to hand someone exactly what they were asking for.

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“Do you have a black XL T-shirt?”

“Sure thing!”

“Would you like a collared XL shirt as well?”

“No, I have plenty. Thank you!”

“Are you sure? These are all XL.”

“No, thank you. I’ve got more than I need already and there are other people who need those.”

I looked in his hands and saw two pairs of socks, one pair of jeans, the black T-shirt, and a coat. More than he needs? He has plenty? My mind reeled as I took in what he was saying and what my privilege had assumed. I wanted to give him more, but he wanted to make sure that the people who would use and wear the collared shirts would be able to have those. He knew he wouldn’t use them, so he left them for someone else.

And I thought about how much I have, about how many times I’ve not even thought about other people who might need something I have more than me. And I was confronted with my privilege again.

As a woman who has pursued ministry, in particular preaching and pastoring ministry, I have fought against privilege and systemic discrimination. And as I have confronted and challenged that privilege by simply trying to answer my call, I have often thought there was no way I could have privilege, no way I could not understand those who are fighting the same battle I am fighting in different realms.

I was wrong.

The work we have done with the homeless has humbled me, challenged me, and made me confront the reality that I have privilege that makes me want to give more to someone who thinks more about the community surrounding him than he does about how many clothes he has.

 

      

“I’m Following the Bread”

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Yesterday as we worshipped at Transitions Homeless Shelter, we had more new people who had never worshipped with us than we’ve ever had. When someone new joins our community, there are always questions about who can or can’t take communion and since communion is a part of every service it is a point of discussion almost every week.

Again and again I’ve heard reflections from our community of their experiences being denied communion. The justification was they were not worthy, not in good standing with God, or had unconfessed sin before God. In most cases, the person denying communion was a minister who had judged their life to not be in good standing with God. This has happened so often that it has driven me to research the theological interpretations and traditions surrounding partaking of communion.

Certainly, part of the communion conversation has to include the Catholic tradition of not having people who are not Catholic partake in the Body and Blood. This belief stems from doctrine in the Catholic church that indicates that one who is conscious of grave sin should not partake in the Body and Blood of Christ nor those who are non-Christian or non-Catholic.

In the Protestant church, there are a variety of different beliefs and traditions associated with whom can partake of communion and how often communion is administered. Lutherans, Disciples or Christ, UCC, and Episcopalians all partake in communion weekly following the tradition found in the Catholic Church while Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians vary in how often they participate in the Lord’s Table. Just as some Protestants have taken on the traidtion in the Catholic church to partake in weekly communion so to have some denominations taken on the belief that no one who is engaged in grave sin or unconfessed sin should partake in communion. These grave sins are interpreted and expounded upon by church leadership creating a closed communion experience in these communities of faith. Other denominations who are welcoming and affirming of women, all races, members of the LGTBQ community, and to those who are seekers of faith and have not yet defined their faith identity, engage in open community meaning that all are welcome to God’s table regardless of race, gender, or sexuality.

As someone who was raised in a closed communion community of faith, it is important to me to specify in our worship with ministrieslab that God’s table is open to God’s people and God’s people are all who are created in the image of God. My sincere belief in open communion reflects my belief that my role as a minister is not to judge, classify, or exclude anyone who is seeking fellowship with God, but rather to encourage, challenge, and journey with God’s people.

I’ve seen too many people like the woman yesterday who said, “I’m following that bread around. Wherever that bread goes, I go,” who are hungry for the sustenance of fellowship, community, and yes the broken body of Christ to deny anyone a seat at God’s table.

May we all consider more deeply how our practices and traditions in our communities of faith have lasting impact on people who worship with even just once.

When Church Walls Prevent Us From Being the Church

As Ben and I were enjoying our afternoon Panera coffee break (he just had water), we met an Assembly of God minister who was interested in what we were doing at ministrieslab. He explained that church starting had started to be a conversation in the AG church and church starters were encouraged to find a theater or a school to meet in. Then he asked, “Where are ya’ll going to meet?”

I responded, “We’re not going to have a place. We’re going to be the church and pop up in the midst of need.”

He considered that for a minute and then drew the connection to the early church movement. I smiled as he continued to reflect on the changes in church and the emphasis on having bigger and bigger congregations and buildings. He concluded his reflection by saying, “But a lot of those churches don’t have missions as their center. They just want to have more people.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “Whether we like to admit it or not, having church walls has changed our perception of church. Most people believe church is a place to go to and not a way to live your life.”

In working with the homeless population in Columbia, I’ve heard numerous stories of people who have invited the clients to church, but they can’t go to church because of their limited mobility. It made me think of the number of times I have been invited to church and these invitations have always been to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day, but didn’t Jesus command us to go?

Church walls confine our ability to dream about the future of the church. Church walls ask us to label and separate children, youth, and adults into age-based Sunday School classes. Church walls confine our ministers to office and office hours limiting their ability and mobility in the community.

Church walls limit our creativity in thinking about the future of the church. Perhaps it’s time to break down some of those walls that exclude and label and dream of what we could do if we were the church instead of if we went to church.

Because ministrieslab doesn’t have a building, Ben and I met a fellow minister at a coffeeshop. A fellow minister with whom we got to fellowship and who also provided a donation to the work we are doing.

Want to join us in our mission to pop up in the midst of need? We’ll come to you.

When Ministry Is Hard

 

Ministry is hard when you have to stand beside and pray on behalf of a mom who has lost her 7 and a half week old reminding her that she still has to take care of her postpartum body that hasn’t even healed yet.

Ministry is hard in a political climate that is divisive, filled with name calling, and high stakes.

Ministry is hard in the midst of decline church membership, declining budgets, and increased expectations on time and responsibilities.

Ministry is hard when you feel called to serve, but can’t find a place to call you to serve.

Ministry is hard when you see over and over again the hurt and pain the church has caused so many people.

Ministry is hard when you are ministering to the homeless and hear people remark about how people who are homeless are just lazy because there are jobs available everywhere and you know it’s not true.

Ministry is hard when you find your privilege exposed and your assumptions revealed.

Ministry is hard as our culture looks to our churches for guidance on how to interpret the violence we experience much too often.

Ministry is hard as you navigate what it means to be someone who is called God’s word to God’s people.

Thanks be to God for those men and women who are ministers, especially when ministry is hard.

 

A Fractured Reality

As more and more people begin to arrive in Greensboro for CBF’s General Assembly, there is no question that the press release this morning with a call from Suzii Paynter to work towards unity was meant to set the stage for the conversation about CBF’s discriminatory hiring policy. It sounds a lot like we are following in the footsteps of Methodists, except for one thing. While the Methodists are willing to admit that their process of discovery is in regards to the LGTBQ question, Paynter says:

We are introducing a process not for a single problem or for a single moment.

Her statement reveals the fractured reality CBF has been living in.

Because CBF does not kick churches out of their fellowship, there exists a wide array of churches along the theological spectrum. In fact some of CBF churches are still dually aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, which had protestors at the funerals of the victims of the Orlando shooting. These dually aligned churches are hoping CBF will do exactly what Paynter’s words indicate: avoid the LGTBQ question entirely. The reality is by avoiding the question, CBF is hoping to maintain the financial backing of churches, ministers, and lay people from a wide range of theological understandings.

But CBF can’t exist in this fractured reality for much longer. Churches and ministers who support the LGTBQ community and who don’t or don’t want to address the question, will keep pushing for a clear answer on what CBF believes. As more and more ministers and churches push, the fracture will become bigger.

And maybe this isn’t a bad place for CBF to be because it mirrors the conflicted climate of the church. The possibility of losing funding or losing members over the difficult conversations of gender and sexuality is a reality that so many churches and ministers are trying to navigate. Maybe by feeling the pressure and stress that so many churches and ministers are bearing, CBF will look to a future that values not money above all, but rather the resurrection power of Christ to transform the world.

You Cannot Serve

I remember in seminary, discussing a case study in which someone was asking to become a member of Baptist church. In the case study, the person had been baptized as an infant and did not want to be rebaptized. This was rich fodder for us as future ministers because many of us were serving in Baptist congregation who had similar membership requirements. The discussion was important because membership in the case study, and in many of our ministry contexts, was tied to the ability to volunteer or become a deacon. In the case of the person in the case study, the church refused to offer this person membership as many of my classmates concluded would happen in their own ministry contexts.

In other words, the church gets to decide who is in and who is out. Is it a wonder why there is a stark decline in membership? Every year 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity. Not only are people not becoming members of congregations, but those who are members aren’t involved anymore. If you can make it through the membership hoops that many congregations require, you still might be told you cannot serve based on your gender or your sexual orientation. For many communities of faith, wanting to volunteer to serve is dependent on fitting biblical interpretation that excludes and discriminates against women and members of the LGTBQ community.

If you have never been told because of your gender or because of your sexual orientation that you cannot serve as a volunteer at a church, then you have a privilege many people don’t. If you have never doubted that you would be able to be involved in church activities included leading Sunday School, chaperoning youth trips, and serving as a deacon, you have a privilege many people don’t. If you have never been told, you cannot serve based on who you are, you have a privilege many don’t. There is too much to do and too much need for churches to be deciding who can and cannot serve God and help those in need. This is spiritual abuse.

If you find yourself as one of the many who churches have told you cannot serve because of who you are, join us at ministrieslab.

 

 

The Future of the Church and Spiritual Abuse

I was asked recently by a reader whether I thought there was a connection between spiritual abuse victims and the repression of spiritual gifts, which made me think about a connection that has been ruminating in my heart and mind for quite awhile. From the number of people I have heard from who have experienced and are recovering from communities of faith that engaged in spiritual abuse, I have to wonder whether the use of spiritual abuse to coerce unquestioned adherence is the culprit for the decline we see across the board in mainline Protestant congregations. If spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power, then there is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. Those young people raised in these community of faiths would now be adults. Adults whose age happen to correspond with the missing demographic in most churches: the millennials.

Perhaps the rise of the nones and the decline in church attendance is because of the rampant spiritual abuse that has crept into and overtaken our communities of faith. Perhaps the next generation of church leaders and ministers weren’t ever allowed to voice or express their calls to ministry, and so instead have found places to express their calls to ministry in other ways. Perhaps the next generation of ministers have created churches in bars, nightclubs, clothing stores, financial advisor offices, and restaurants because that’s where they have been able to find employment. These would have been ministers can’t help but pour drinks, DJ, restock shelves, plan for your retirement, and serve food without using those spiritual gifts that found no place in their communities of faith. They, like Mary and Joseph, have found no room or warmth in churches and so instead have formed congregations, places of worship, and spaces for others like them to bring their gifts to lay at Jesus’ feet in the most unlikely places.

And now churches are interested in drawing in millennials because churches are starting to realize that millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Churches can no longer depend on the financial safety net of Baby Boomers. So, churches are desperately trying to woo the millennial back into their sanctuaries and back into giving pledges with overhauls in worship style and book studies about millennial culture, all the while avoiding the difficult conversations about spiritual abuse that’s being practiced through exclusion of members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and women. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse and have fought the hard battle of recovering and found faith again, are not going to be willing to participate in communities of faith still tainted and overrun with spiritual abuse practices.

The most important issue our communities of faith need to be addressing is not the decline in church attendance or giving, but why this is happening. Answering that question will require churches and church leaders to take a long, hard look at how they have participated in a culture of hate, exclusion, and spiritual abuse. But don’t expect these conversations to happen without a fight. Those who have engaged in spiritual abuse practices in order to maintain power have proven they are willing to use any means, even holy scripture, to protect their positions of power and privilege.

Do We Have to Welcome and Affirm All?

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As the conversation about gender and sexuality is more prevalent in American culture, the question, “Do we have to welcome and affirm all?” is circulating in churches.

Some churches are responding to these conversations and this question by expressing their rights as religious institutions to express condemnation and judgement. Some churches are responding to these conversations and this question by expressing that it seems like churches are being asked to be politically correct and not faithful, even calling on people who have been saved from homosexuality to speak out. Some churches have even decided to identify as welcoming, but not affirming, but have found grave difficulty in the practical implementation of this theological tenet.

Yesterday, as I lead worship at Transitions with Ministrieslab, I was struck by the reflections of those gathered about being homeless and how people perceive you. “I know this sounds crazy and most people won’t believe me, but homelessness is the best choice I made because I chose a life away from addiction and constantly being in that environment. This is my new life.”

I can’t help but feel the same way. As a woman called to preach, coming out as a woman preacher was the best decision I made. It caused me to cut ties with a past of spiritual abuse and step into a future full of resurrection.

But my story, the stories of members of LGTBQ community, and the story I heard at Transitions challenge the church that has created discriminatory membership practices that teach some people are welcomed and affirmed by God and others aren’t. As churches and denominations continue to debate whether they should welcome and affirm all, those of us who have been rejected, silenced, and treated as outsiders will continue to gather, continue to worship, and continue to tell our stories.

And once churches and denominations have settled on this question, they just might find themselves without members as the rest of us work to bring the kingdom of God here on earth by partnering with organizations who are busy helping rather than busy debating.

When We Come Together

I’m sitting at the local coffeeshop in my hometown, running into family and friends, and in general looking out the window in awe at the way the city has changed. There was a group of people who came together with a vision for making Spartanburg into a place where there was food, books, and coffee that they wanted to eat, read, and drink.

When we come together with a vision about what could be, it really is incredible what can happen. Is it going to take time? Yes. Is it going to take hard work? Yes. Are there times that they didn’t think it would pan out? Absolutely.

If more ministers and clergy were willing to admit that church could be better, imagine what we could dream up. If more churches were willing to admit they needed to change because of the changing dynamics of technology, jobs, and the economy, imagine what we could envision. When we come together to find solutions, we create a future for the church and this crazy gospel message that keeps transforming lives.

When We Carry Each Other’s Burdens

Although we might like to think the church models that are currently in place exhibit the gathering of people trying to interpret and understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the 1st Century, they don’t. Our American churches much more closely resemble corporate America with hierarchies, hiring policies, and operating systems implemented directly from the business world.

To think that this model is going to continue to survive in an economy where businesses are having to be innovative and creative in how they engage customers and consumers is naive. The business model from the 1950s isn’t working for businesses, so it certainly won’t work for churches.

Part of the issue with the way our churches are operating is that the pastor and ministers serve as the CEO, vice president, and COO of the church. In this model, the responsibility of the success of the church and the church’s viability falls on their shoulders.

But this isn’t the only responsibility of the ministers. The ministers are also the ones who are to bear the burdens of grief, guilt, shame, sadness, pain, abuse, frustration, confusion, hopelessness, and hurt of the entire congregation. Even in a single-staff church whose membership is forty people, the ratio of burdens to burden-bearer are much too high for sustainability. It’s simply too much for one person to bear in the current economic context of declined giving and membership. Is it any wonder that the rate of  clergy suicide and clergy burnout continues to climb?

Our model is broken and if the decline in giving and church membership and rates of clergy suicide and burnout aren’t red flags that get our attention, perhaps a look back at scripture will open our eyes:

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Paul is suggesting here that to be a community of faith is to bear each other’s burdens, not cast our burdens on those who have been called by God to lead and guide God’s people. In the midst of a letter that reminds God’s people that there are those who will come and deliver a false gospel (ahem model something of God after American culture), perhaps this is just the reminder we need as the people of God. When we commit to a community of faith, we aren’t committing to a preacher or a minister, we are committed to each other. To journey with each other, to hurt with each other, to carry one another’s burdens.

When we carry each other’s burdens, we become evidence of God working in and among God’s people. When we carry each other’s burdens rather than transforming our ministers into burden-bearers, we just might be working to ensure that there will still be pastors and ministers called by God who are alive and vibrant to lead the church into the future.