Dear Members and Friends,
Worship and Religious Education are well underway this year. I have been enjoying getting to touch base with you all as we have gone about our usual opening rituals. I enjoyed getting to see folks at the Kickoff Sunday brunch. I was moved by the sharing at our the Gathering of the Waters during our ingathering. This congregation is a community that supports and hears each other. It is wonderful to be getting back together after our summer journeys.
It was also great to see so many of you make an effort to get to church! This brings me to another topic that I would like to touch on briefly. I want to talk to you about attendance. Keep reading! You can do it! It may even be helpful to know that our current attendance is slightly higher this year...
We have always been a church with a much larger membership than we see regularly on Sundays. This is fine. In fact, even though this is the case, most people do manage to drop in from time to time. People work hard to make it to non-worship events when they come up on the calendar. Which is to say that we attend Pub Theology, Dungeons & Dragons, philosophy discussions (like our Emerson group), Chili Cookoffs, house parties, vigils, rallies, and workdays, among other things. We are there for each other outside of church and for casual gathers, too. Eliot Church is blessed by a dedicated membership.
It’s just that we can get really, really busy. The world isn’t constructed around “sacred time”. Many of our members work on Sundays. Others have rigorous travel schedules. There are illnesses, child commitments, weather challenges, and social obligations that get in the way of making it every week.
I get it. There are weeks I don’t make it to church either.
However, I would like to encourage all of us to make a point of attending worship when we can this year. In fact, I would like you to consider committing to making it to church more than you did last year! I will, too. I can think of an infinite number of reasons why we should make an effort. I bet you can think of a few as well. However, I would like to mention three key reasons for this church this year.
Our Faith Community Needs Our Presence To Thrive:
You may have noticed over the years that Eliot Church has gone through some changes. We are very much a community in transition. Our RE program is divided between teens and toddlers with no one in between. Our outreach and justice work (and, therefore our profile in the community) has increased substantially. We have also grown closer together as individuals. Heck, we even go skiing in New Hampshire together!
The fact is, this church is doing a lot of work and having a lot of fun. We need your presence to make the party better. We need your participation to make the load lighter. We need your ideas to maintain this congregation and guarantee its future. Right now the church is strong. We want to keep it that way. This won’t just happen on it’s own.
I am serious. There are no guarantees. If you value the Eliot Church, it isn’t enough to love it from afar. We need you to be here with us to keep it a living, loving, vibrant place. Worship is the biggest part of that. It is central to everything else we do.
Our Faith Community Needs Our Presence for Others:
Guess what? Loving Eliot Church from afar doesn’t help when we have visitors, either. Worship is usually where they encounter the congregation for the first time. The past couple of weeks we have had a few newbies drop by. If you are not here, they don’t know that you are part of what is happening. They only see those who showed up that day. Yeah, we do our best when people cannot make it. That said, when new folks come to church they are looking for others on the same spot in their life-path. It’s not that they don’t want to hang with everyone else. They just want to know that people like them are welcome and supported!
That means they want to see parents of young children, new empty nesters, retirees, young couples and old couples and be greeted by those people. Life can be lonely. Visitors want to see folks who are interested in the same things they are interested in. In a small church--and being a small church is also our strength--the challenge is that when one or two individuals or families cannot make it on a Sunday, it is like that entire group just doesn’t exist. Once again, part of belonging is showing up.
If visitors do not make some sort of connection with people they identify with after a couple of weeks? They find somewhere else to go to church. The congregation misses out on potential members. We members miss out on potential friends. Those visitors miss out on a community that they may have loved and would have loved them.
We Need Our Faith Community:
Look, getting through the week is hard. It is isolating. There are times when all we do is move from task to task. Even things we enjoy take time and effort. They leave us feeling tired and wiped out. Maybe there are moments when we just want to “sleep in” on Sunday. This certainly happens to me. However, when we step back and really consider it, that doesn’t make much sense.
Let’s set aside the fact that services are at 10am. When we are home most of us can realistically both sleep in and get to church on time. I get up between 5 and 6 most mornings. I bet a lot of the rest of the congregation does too. We get the kids off to school and then get to work by 8 or 9. The only “school” the kids have on Sunday is at church. Also, the commute to Eliot is usually pretty easy. It is near where we live. Traffic is light.
What we are really suffering from is inertia. We forget that church has something to offer. We forget that it is only an hour long on the slowest day of the week. We are forgetting that we need to feed our spirits. We need the church but we worry too much about the demands of our everyday lives and neglect the sacred elements that give those lives meaning. This is what keeps us home.
The fact is, what sustains us is exactly what the church is offering. Stressed out and tired? Come sit with us and take a while to put those worries in perspective. Find some solace and new life in the rituals and ancient wisdom that worship provides. Do you feel isolated? Guess what! Your friends are at church. We can talk to you about your problems. We can listen to you talk. We can just have some coffee. We are not the first people to feel the way we do. That is why we are meant to join in community to explore the Divine. Coming together in worship helps us to live lives of greater meaning and strength.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this long screed, people are, in fact, coming to church. Also, those of you who were around a couple of weeks ago know that I made a big thing in the sermon about how worship attendance and participation is non-coercive in our tradition. That is true. Neither I nor the leadership is interested in making anyone do anything they don't want to do. That said, part of my job is to observe and encourage. Both your own spiritual well being and the future well-being of this community are in your hands. In this new church year, it is my hope that we continue to grow together as a healthy community of faith
This Sunday we will gather in worship. We will have coffee hour. We will practice what we preach about being a caring spiritual community. I hope you can make it. If you cannot, then I hope to see you when you are able!
See You in Church,
This Friday is the big Coffeehouse. We have two a year. This one--youth only--has always been the largest in terms of both participants and audience. There is an art show attached to it as well. The visual artists display their works and we keep them up for Reformation Sunday, which is also a big day in our church that includes worship, a "pageant" (about Olympia Brown), D&D, pumpkin carving, and the Jack-O-Lantern competition. Anyway, Friday is an important day for some of the kids and they work pretty hard to get the weekend going properly.
It has always been interesting to watch the youth prepare. As young artists they are learning a variety of "languages" they can use to express their inner thoughts and feelings. It is a challenge for them. We all want to be understood. We also all know that our audience--our "public"-- will fall short of fully comprehending our message. Still, we try to get it right, don't we? To be fully human we have to try. A song--a painting, a poem, a photograph--comes from deep inside us. As artists our hopes are high. However, it helps to keep our expectations more realistic without also crushing that dream we wanted to share in the first place.
I know how the kids feel. I have struggled to be understood in a variety of media over the years. However, the one I care about the most is preaching. I will never be a great (or even good) musician. My photography doesn't get much past the "pretty picture" phase. In pottery class I once made a 4-foot tall unbalanced black vase which may have been the ugliest thing ever offered up at a school art exhibit. I admit that I abandoned it. I walked away. For all I know it still sits there by the door to the North Yarmouth Academy teacher's lounge collecting cigarettes and dust.
Preaching, though, I care about doing well. I feel it when I don't quite hit the mark.
Yeah, preaching is an art. At least it is sometimes. It falls into the same category as chairs and benches. They can be built just to keep your bottom off the ground or they can be built to also elicit a feeling or a thought. I bet they--chairs--can even inspire action. I can go to the Museum of Fine Art to see (and sometimes sit on) a wide variety of items, or I can sit at my computer to get my emails done. One chair is not better than the other. They just have different purposes. One is a practical item that helps support our daily living. Our bodies and our backs are grateful for its presence. Another is all of that plus art. It makes us look up, out, down, or in. Even though we may be physically stationary we are, in fact, moved.
Sermons should fall into that second category, even when people do not notice the "soul" within it. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who work in professions where talking is part of the job. Politicians and lecturers (the good ones anyway) often use some of the techniques of preaching to improve their own work. Others believe there is no difference between a good lecture and a good sermon. Those folks are wrong, of course. You can give a fine presentation, but performing it in church doesn't necessarily mean you have come close to touching the sacred.
After all, I can make a witty, informative, entertaining, motivational talk using the tools I am teaching those teens in my public speaking class. However, I still fail to preach sometimes. I have done it before (sadly) and I will do it again. The fact is, to create art one must dig deep. A good sermon--just like any of the offerings at our coffeehouses--requires a bit of personal exploration. It requires a moment of connection to the great "out there". In the moment of creation and interpretation we find that part of us and/or our world where normal conversation fails. Then we try once again to articulate it.
As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels and have not love, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging symbol." Finding that love (here used in its broad, theological sense) is the task of any artist--and we are all artists. The preacher tries to find some small glimmer of it each week to issue an invitation and offer up a path for people who hopefully feel drawn enough to walk another mile along the way.
Preaching, like any art, requires discipline. We grow into our voices and into our "vision". Whenever you hear a sermon, you are listening to the product of hours, days, and years of prayer, meditation, and study focused into a tiny window of mere minutes. Sometimes it stinks. Sometimes it just isn't your bag. That said, have faith at least that the preacher is working hard. The colleagues I have met who didn't accept the preaching moment as a sacred one are all doing something else with their lives now. Leading worship isn't something you do without love.
When I think of the kids getting ready for this weekend, I think of this process. I hope and pray that in their important and necessary playing around they find what they need to build a life of deep spiritual expression. I hope they find something that motivates them and makes all the steep lonely hours of practice and study worthwhile. The world of hard matter may never give them a measurable reward for their efforts, but maybe they will find that reward where they keep their souls and spirits. Maybe they will reach others through the foggy chaos of their existence.
Then--maybe--they will make us all a little less broken.
So today is the first official day of my sabbatical. I have already been working on various projects but in the next week or so, things will be kicking into a higher gear. Over the last few weeks, there have been some changes to the plan. My "Folk Project" will need to take a back seat to some more pressing material. In fact, a theme has emerged that runs through most of the other projects and, naturally, this is something that I intend to follow.
I am enclosing here the outline of my work for the next few months. They are roughly in the order they will be addressed. Of course, there will be some overlap as well.
Teaching: Some of you are aware that I have a son who is "homeschooled". The term--while it makes sense from a legal perspective--is a bit misleading. Most homeschoolers do NOT spend their days sitting around the kitchen table. They are highly social and are involved in programs outside the home on a daily basis. Many times they have a great deal of control over what and how they learn. It can be complicated, but for a certain kind of kid who is willing to take ownership of their education, a well-conducted homeschool plan is just the best darn thing.
Among other activities, my son attends a school that subscribes to a "self directed learning" model. It has teachers and advisers who help the student plan out their year. Various courses are offered by the teachers, volunteers, and interns based on the interests of the student body. This is where I come in. I will be teaching two course at the school this fall. One is Public Speaking and the other is Nature and Spirituality. I know a bit about both subjects and expect to learn more.
I am looking forward to this. I am curious how it will go. While I have done some teaching with children in this age group (10-19), it has been mostly in a church context. Of course, there is a great deal of similarity between a Sunday School model and what happens at this school, so it won't be entirely unfamiliar. Still, it is good practice and a lot more "face time" than what I am used to. Each class meets formally once a week and then I will be available as a "mentor" at other times. Thanks to this time commitment, it is the first on my list.
Church Curriculum: I have written about this before. We are transitioning our Sunday School to a "one-room" model with a series of "units". Each unit will lead to some kind of project or presentation in church. I am responsible for writing all but one of these.
My former intern (now sabbatical pastor) will be writing the second unit on Advent. I have already written the first unit, which is about women in the church. This means that the next one I am concerned with (a social justice unit with a focus on LGBTQIA+ issues) will need to be ready some time in November so the teachers and I can go over it before it's January start date.
Obviously, the teaching I will do at the school will influence how I go about these curricula at church. In both cases there is a "project" element. Also, they both work on a student-centered discussion model. A great deal will depend on their willingness to be engaged and our ability to engage them. I am actually moving a little slower in this area right now because I think that my perspective may change after doing some teaching.
Dungeons and Dragons Club: Yeah, there is this. I am well into the development of a world for my player characters to explore. I have been a Dungeon Master for many a year, starting way back in my teens when being a nerd wasn't so cool. Perhaps that is why I am still a bit surprised by the level of initial interest from the kids. It is a great thing! I am very pleased.
My goal is to have enough material ready for a first meeting near the end of September. At that point we will make characters and perhaps run through a couple of short battles or scenarios to see if everyone gets the game mechanics. It would also be good to see who actually shows up so we can plan for either one or two groups. I will probably also need a rotating cast of "assistant DM's" to keep things rolling...
OK... I assume you see the theme, right? All of these activities will apply most directly toward the church's religious education program. RE has been an interest of mine ever since my first paid gig as "Co-Youth Group Director" for the middle schoolers at the UU church in Evanston, Illinois. In my current capacity I don't have as much time to do get into it as much as I would like. I am hoping that using my sabbatical time to get the prep work done will make me a better pastor to the kids and their parents. We shall see...
What this does mean is that the who Folk Project must be the last of my concerns. I haven't given up on it entirely. However, the spirit does seem to be moving me in a different direction right now...
I want to be clear. I chose a life in the church. When I was about 17, I became one of those kids that hangs around the margins of friendly youth groups. I would show up for pizza and movies. Sometimes, I might even go to worship. At that time my parents were not church people. They liked to sleep in and have brunch on Sundays. I went on my own.
There were many reasons for my decision. I was interested in issues of life and death that didn't seem to be addressed in other places. I was also a very political kid. In fact, I decide to become a minister at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta. I was a "page" for the Maine delegation (I wasn't old enough to vote ). However, I was also there as a volunteer for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. It was my time with that campaign ---staying up late with a combination of labor organizers and pastors ---that helped me find a different path from the political system I had become disillusioned with. That is when it finally occurred to me that I could find a way to combine my interest in spirituality with my interest in helping people. None of those folks I knew in Atlanta would remember me today but I am glad that I met them.
The point is, I love the church. There have been times and contexts where I have found myself in a "poor fit". There are times when I have grown tired both as a layperson and as a pastor. This is natural. That said, I have made the church central to my existence. It is my job. The church houses, clothes, and feeds me...literally. When everyone else leaves, I am still there. It is also, in many respects, central to my social life. Outside of my family, the vast bulk of my friends are either clergy or clergy spouses. So it is no small thing to me when I see the changes happening in our congregations and institutions. You can count me in the front ranks of those who have a lot to lose.
Like everyone, I see that most churches are shrinking. Some of them are closing. Supporting institutions like denominations/associations and seminaries are merging and sometimes vanishing as resources for survival become harder to find. Well-meaning church growth consultants will sell you recovery programs. The problem is that their success rate is hardly better than doing whatever you are doing now. Pub Theology isn't going to save us. Tweaking the liturgy isn't going to save us. Increasing or decreasing staffing isn't going to save us. Altering our programming isn't going to save us. At least not the "us" that we think of when we think of the traditional institutional church. Change is already here.
It is inevitable that we greet this desperate situation with a certain amount of anxiety. This is simply because the change we see is also inevitable. There are too many forces at play to turn back the clock and expect that being the "best congregation or denomination ever" is going to bring people back in to worship every week. We are in the midst of watching something we love potentially die. It is as if we built sand castles on the beach expecting that the tide would never rise. Well now it has risen and it will continue to. Building a bigger moat will work about as well as it does on the beach. Our culture will not reverse itself. The institutions that we know and love will either fall into the sea or become something entirely different.
We do no one any favors by pretending that this isn't happening. When we do, we all end up running around trying to fix it. Then, when we fail we label ourselves "failures". Perhaps we find others (denominational leaders, pastors, church moderators for example) to blame for a flood that has been centuries in the making. In any case, we mourn the loss and see it as final and tragic. None of this is a necessary response.
What we should do is stop our whining and face the future with our heads high and our hearts open. That, of course, requires us to greet our situation using a different frame. Instead of anxiety, fear, and frustration as we watch the "old thing" fall away we need to turn to the "new thing" being born with a combination of hope, love, and excitement. It is exciting, you know. After centuries of doing roughly the same thing we have been chosen to reinvent how people do religion! Who wouldn't want to do that? I don't know about you but I believe in resurrection. I feel blessed to be able to witness at least the beginning of this one.
The challenge ahead of us, frankly, is a big one. Those consultants I mentioned? They are doing their best but the fact is no one knows what is coming. They are showing us programs that worked somewhere else (we hope). They do not know our (or your) church. Each congregation and each religious organization has a part to play in this resurrection story. That part requires courage. There will be more failures in our future than victories. Yet, the victories will be greater than our failures. It means every leader of every committee in our committee-filled faith will have to expect that they will be sifting through the ruins of plans A, B, and C (at least) to find the small successes with which to build a new way of doing church. Every pastor will have to expect that the church they are building may be beyond their (our) skill set to lead. Denominations and Associations may have to face the fact that they are in the way rather than the way. Everything must be on the table. Why would we expect what comes next to be at all like what is here now?
As you might have gathered, I am not planning to make any great system recommendations at this time (and possibly ever). Too much is in flux. What I would like to suggest, though, is that we practice changing our attitude. We need to be aware of our irrational concerns and to work to solve only the rational ones. We need to once again find joy in innovation. We need to cheer the heck up and open the windows. Throw things against the wall and see what sticks. Then clear out what falls and move on with more grist for the mill.. This is not a time for timidity. Church mice can hide and wring their hands. The rest of us cannot afford to.
I chose a life in the church. I do not want the new church to be built by people with closed minds and hearts. I do not want to spend the rest of my life in an institution that is bitter, angry, and always looking back. I do not want to live in a church that is sincere but scared of the world around it. Can we prepare ourselves for the leap of faith? I hope so. I do not enjoy living in a world of infinite resignation.
Here as promised is the "Flashback" post from last year about long-term ministries. I mentioned it in yesterday's post. Enjoy!
One of my greatest weaknesses as a pastor is--quite simply--that I am not the most organized person to ever wear a Geneva gown. It is a problem that members of my church are rather familiar with. Over the 11-plus years we have been together we have learned to adapt and adjust. Like any long-term relationship, we have found ways to bring out the best in each other...most of the time.
However, one of the problems that this creates is that I am suddenly feeling the need to learn more about long-term ministry. Being in such a ministry will do that to you. I have changed since I arrived in September of 2003. My congregation has changed. The landscape we now are moving through has also changed. We are doing just fine, thank you, but I feel that I need to reflect a bit to be on my game.
The best way would be an ongoing group or a workshop. That is the problem. I am not good at planning. However, I am good at thinking so I thought I would share with you some of the topics that I think such a workshop or group would have to address if someone more gifted in this way were willing and able to work with me on such a thing.
1) Big Famous Keynote: Yes, we can have one of these. I am affiliated with both the UUA and the UCC. So is my church. It isn't hard to think of a few former pastors of big churches who fit into this category and who love to talk. However, what I am looking for from him or her is something very specific. I want theological and spiritual reinforcement for the value of long-term pastorates. This is important stuff and plays right to the strength of "Reverend Biggs". For applied and practical elements, I want to hear from other people who have experience in congregations that are a bit more typical.
2) How Do You Advance Your Career?: ...and what constitutes a successful career if you have stepped away from a system where bigger is always better?
We know why Reverend Biggs stayed at the big steeple right? The pay was good. Important people had heard of the good reverend's church and wanted to invite the pastor onto committees and such. There was time off (thank you Associate Pastors!) to write that meditation manual. This is all fine. Rev. Biggs worked hard, spoke well, and got the brass ring young enough to also serve in one place for a while.
Most of the long-term pastors I know, however, do not serve "big pulpits". We labor in relative anonymity. It is an easy thing to get noticed in that one big congregation in your association. What do the rest of us do to influence the direction of our various denominations? How do you get your voice heard when you have stepped off the career ladder for something you find more fulfilling?
3) How Do You Grow Spiritually Together?: Or, if you prefer, "How do you keep from getting bored or being boring"? A long-term pastorate, like any long-term relationship, can get dull if you don't work on it. My wife and I go to a lot of concerts, date nights, couples nights, and so on. We go for long walks to chat. We have been together for twice as long as I have been at the church.
Now I am not one of those "ministry is like a marriage" people because, well, it isn't like a marriage at all. That said, it is still a relationship that needs work. What are the equivalents to these sorts of experiences in a long-term ministry? I will say that I have had two rather distinct ministries at Eliot. There was the one before my sabbatical and the one after it. Both were quality ministries but they were different. I wonder if some sabbatical planning would make a good workshop.
4) How Do You Grow On Your Own?: Again, the same people all the time. The same patterns. What do you do away from the church to keep yourself sharp?
5) What About New People?: Some long-term ministers are pretty good about integrating new people. Others not so much. We have leaders we are comfortable with. Often we have known them for what feels like FOREVER. What sort of tricks and techniques would help facilitate lay-leadership growth?
6) How Do You Not Mess It Up For the Next Person (and here I mean Parson)?: This. Is. Important. A Church isn't after all, about us. In a long-term ministry it is inevitable (particularly in small and mid-sized churches) that the pastor becomes part of the architecture in some sense. The church building...the old communion silver...the ancient pastor who baptized both you and your kids...all are permanent and timeless after a while. What happens to the new person when they show up? How hard have we made it for them if we have over a decade of service in one place? I would like to hear from a really good Interim and find out what drives them crazy about us. I even have someone in mind.
7) God: This is the most important question. Where is God in our ministries? Are we in the same place because we don't want to (or cannot) move? Is there still life and spirit in the pastoring? These are important questions. Certainly there are always practical considerations that make us choose to stay. At the same time we are ministers. If God says "go" we go. If God says "stay" we stay. Perhaps this is where we end with small group discussion inspired by Reverend Biggs' sermon. We cannot let our relationship with God get old.
Anyway, this is my non-exhaustive list. Can anyone think of other items? My years at Eliot easily rest among the very best things that have ever happened to me. I know that every long-term minister would agree about their settlements. That is why we are still around. That is why we do the work we do. The challenge is to keep doing that work and to do it well...
Lately I have been giving thought to my sabbatical. This is something most parish ministers receive every 5 to 7 years. This is my second at Eliot Church. If you were to ask me 10 years ago whether or not I was going to have even one sabbatical at Eliot, I would've claimed that the odds were long. I had just finished a very short productive – but – difficult first settlement. The idea of staying in one place for an extended time, while appealing, seemed highly unlikely to me. Yet, here I am in my 13th year at this congregation.
Last year when I was thinking about this topic I posted on the old Burbania Posts I talked about best practices for a long settlement. I will re-post that here sometime soon. However, an article has been floating around Facebook that addresses the same issue. The article (linked below) lists eight "steps" or maintaining a long ministry. Some of them feel a little obvious. The first one “never stop learning" reminds me too much of "don't stop believing" to be of much use. Besides, it's pretty obvious.
However, there are others that are useful. Being willing to change, empowering others in the congregation to do their own ministries, and keeping a regular Sabbath are all good ideas and ones that I try to follow. My favorite, though is the concept of “reverse mentoring”. The author suggests that we practice the habit of learning from the young and innovative people in our lives. There are few things in my ministry that I love more than hanging out with the youth groupers. The opportunity for me to learn and grow is a big part of that.
All of these specific suggestions point to a more general stance of flexibility. I remember at my long-ago "candidating week" (when finalists for a position and the congregation they hope to serve spend a week checking each other out) telling folks that an average ministry lasts for around 5 years. A long ministry, I believed then (and still believe now) is a series of 5-6 year ministries where the staff remains the same. Sabbatical (a form of Sabbath) obviously helps to keep minds open to what that new ministry might look like.
Anyway, here's the article. I found it interesting and a worthwhile read for those who hope to have a long stay in whatever congregation they happen to serve. For those of us who have had long ministries it is useful to find a language to explain what it is that we have done. Again, tomorrow I will add a "Flashback" to this page with the article I posted last year.