Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Praying with Our Farmers

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza 2013: Tractor Lineup

Like many good ministry ideas, this one came about by accident.

I interned at two small, rural churches during my second year in seminary. At one of the churches – on my first Sunday there – the pastor invited me to the front of the sanctuary to introduce myself. He asked me to share two fun or interesting facts about myself. When put on the spot like this, I always seem to draw a blank and end up saying something weird. This time, I shared the fact that that when I was a kid my favorite toys were tractor figurines. What I said was absolutely true, but it probably would not have been all that interesting to the vast majority of people.

Only, I wasn’t talking to the majority of people: I was talking to farmers. It was probably the best thing I could have said to ingratiate myself with the people of this church. I was a local girl from another rural county about a half-hour away. I loved tractors, and I happened to be dating a dairy farmer (who is now my husband). They loved me. My internship went well, and I didn’t think about my embarrassing introduction again until about a year later.

Someone from that church called me up and asked if I’d be willing to lead worship early on a Sunday morning at an antique tractor show they were organizing, since they knew I really loved tractors. I immediately jumped at the opportunity because it seemed so unique. It wasn’t until I started planning that I realized I had potentially bitten off more than I could chew. What would the setting be like? How long should this service be? Would there be a microphone? What should I do about music? What exactly does one preach about at a tractor show? This final question was what I spent the most time worrying about. I wanted to say something relevant, but I was afraid that if I went with a Scripture passage with too much agricultural imagery I would either look like I was trying too hard, or I would show how much I don’t understand about agriculture when I tried to preach on it. Read more

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Communion in the City

Take-Out Neon Sign in a New York deli

Sign in a New York deli

There’s a story, a myth perhaps, about a congregation that stopped all activities during Lent. That season they gathered for Sunday worship, and then the pastor and elders visited the homes of everyone in the congregation to serve communion. They held no meetings and no rehearsals – only worship on Sundays and in homes.

Anytime I complained to a former colleague about how busy my church was she would tell me this story. The idea is wonderful, but one that would take tremendous planning and congregational buy-in. Neither I nor the congregation I now serve was ready for this kind of endeavor, but the story got me thinking about communion and Lent in new ways.

During Lent in 2014, I invited the congregation I serve to join me for “Communion in the City.” Each Wednesday evening we gathered in a public space for fellowship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. During the five weeks that we met, we broke bread at two different Panera Bread restaurants, the mall food court, a McDonald’s, and a downtown outdoor space. Read more

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

Life at The Table

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

Carving pumpkins and enjoying dinner together at The Table

In Seminary, a professor had a “Dead Church Swear Jar.” If we said local congregations, denominations, or the Church universal was dying or dead, we had to put money in the jar. The point was that God is still alive and moving – and that will never change.

Yes, God is still alive and moving. Our rapidly-growing community was recently named one of the top 10 hottest neighborhoods in the nation. Everyone wants to live here, visit here, eat here, and enjoy the fun urban vibe we have. But very few people want to worship here. My own congregation – the largest protestant church in the neighborhood – is stuck at 50 people who are dying at a rate of 15% per year.

Statistically, in 5 years, the congregation will cease to exist. It is hard to think of the neighborhood churches – who aren’t engaged in mission and ministry and simply try to take in enough money to keep the lights on – as anything but “dead.”

But I’m an eternal optimist, and I refuse to go down without a fight. I began dreaming of ways to grow my congregation. I tried the relational model. I tried flyers, social media, websites, videos, free ice cream. You name it, I tried it. But I had minimal success. Visitor after visitor would approach me after worshipping with us for a week or a month and tell me, “I love you and your sermons, but these people! I just can’t do it.” They looked around the congregation and didn’t see anyone who looked like them. They saw that one third of the congregation is in their 90s. It didn’t matter that 15 kids were running around. They only saw a 1940’s church and couldn’t see themselves as part of that.

Our neighborhood, Hampden, is rapidly gentrifying. Thousands of homes are being built within one mile of the church. The older, blue collar mill workers stayed in the neighborhood after the mills closed, after the shops were boarded up and the houses were falling down. About ten years ago, a resurgence began. The artists came. The restaurants came. The shops came. And with these things came the college-educated – most with doctorate degrees and six-figure salaries – displacing the long-time residents who never graduated high school and barely survive on social security.

It’s a tale of two neighborhoods. To change Sunday morning worship to reflect the changing community would only remove the last thing the “Old Hampden” people could hold onto as being theirs. Yet, there is no future in this style of worship and approach to ministry. We needed something new. Read more

Finding the Missing Peace

ministry-lab-dec-2016

Members of Missing Peace make school kits.

Can a person worship while doing gymnastics or talking about science? How about walking a labyrinth or making school kits for refugee kids? While many of my young clergy women sisters might easily nod affirmatively to these questions, it’s fair to say that most traditional worship services don’t include these activities. Two years ago, I began asking, “Why not?”

In both the Old and New Testaments, scripture repeatedly cries out to us to love God with heart, mind, and strength–and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So, why not? Why not take the double love commandment at its word, and form a worshiping community around a rotation of spiritual, cerebral, physical, and service-oriented worship experiences? As I was discerning my call to the new kind of worshiping community that would become Missing Peace, my “why not?” was met with objections: Why not? Because “it would be hard,” and “where would you meet,” and “how will you come up with so many different activities,” and “aren’t you making it harder for people to connect with so much variation?”

Despite all the questions, I knew in my bones that God was calling me into ministry, and I knew that my ministry setting wasn’t going to look like my father’s before me (robe, pulpit, choir). Read more

Finding Words

ministry lab nov 2016I have finally found my voice. I found my voice after seven years of often squelching, silencing parish ministry. For some reason beyond me, this new sense of purpose and meaning has come in the form of what used to intimidate me: writing liturgy. After my last call came to an abrupt close, I felt the overwhelming push to start writing liturgy — something I had always been much too scared to do before. Truth be told, I was actually still scared to do it but somehow knew that I had to. I started by writing Holy Week liturgies and have progressed through the year from there.

I start with the four scriptures appointed for the day in the Revised Common Lectionary. Since they change each week, every liturgy brings new challenges. I always try to include at least three, if not all four, of the readings. The more liturgies I write, the more I find the scripture speaking for itself. I find myself just picking out the central or pertinent parts of scripture and quoting those with added context. I have been surprised just how many times scripture has simply handed me the prayer of confession, and often it’s been way harsher than I would have attempted writing. I also have found that scripture speaks effectively to our current historical moment, sometimes in ways that feel pointed. Scriptural themes of the consolidation of land and wealth resonate strongly, and I often find myself drawing connections between scripture and the U.S. election. Justice (the non-punitive kind) is still needed, and righteousness (which I define as “right-relationship”) is a struggle both in scripture and in our contemporary context. It has been fascinating seeing these arcs and connections. I write the Opening Prayer last, typically using the themes that I would base a sermon on if I were preaching that day. My liturgies are definitely mini-sermons to me.

The stark reality of my ministry is that right now, writing liturgy for others to use is my ministry. Read more

'All Are Welcome' sign above church doors

All Inclusive (a top ten list)

So often in ministry we preach the sermons we need to hear just as much as our congregations need to hear them. That was certainly true of this top ten list. My spouse, you see, is genderqueer. This list is grounded in my experience as a spouse watching even the most progressive churches stumble when it comes to welcoming trans* and genderqueer folks. So consider this a helpful beginner’s guide to making your community of faith a safe space and building up good allies so that all of God’s beloved children are welcome.

'All Are Welcome' sign above church doors

How To Be Good, Inclusive Communities of Faith for All Gender Identities and Expressions:

  1. Don’t split responsive pieces of liturgy between “male” and “female” voices. I’m a big fan of “left side” and “right side.”
  2. Our forms for membership, church school, online options, etc., should list multiple gender options beyond male and female. Where it is possible to give a write-in option rather than choices, do that.
  3. Bathrooms. I know this is everyone’s favorite hot button. But seriously: provide at least one gender neutral restroom. I promise you: folks will thank you for it.
  4. Be mindful of how we talk about God. Use male language, female language, and non-gendered language. The choices we make from the pulpit matter deeply. Be intentional. Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in how we talk about the Holy.
  5. Be good allies. Listen to the voices of those in your community who are trans*, genderqueer etc. Elevate those voices without asking them to educate people. Listen to their stories.
  6. When we mess up, say we’re sorry. I’m married to a genderqueer person. And even I mess up sometimes. It’s part of being an ally. And, when I get it wrong? The first thing I do is say, “I’m sorry,” and commit to doing better.
  7. When members of an applicable community give us feedback about something, listen. Hear them. Make it clear we are taking seriously what they have to say. They shouldn’t have to tell us multiple times that something is offensive for us to stop doing it, or even for us to hear them.
  8. Flags. If we are hanging a rainbow flag or symbol in our building (and gosh I hope we are), then think about hanging a trans* flag too. Every one of the colleagues I know who has done this has seen a new visitor or two in church the next week.
  9. Ask about someone’s pronouns. In my ideal world, all churches who use name tags would include folks’ pronouns. However, we can also ask! Good rule of thumb: if you don’t know, ask. It’s polite to ask without making a fuss to help someone feel fully seen as the beloved child of God they are.
  10. Never out anyone. Pastors, this is crucial for us. If someone comes out to us as trans*, it’s our job to hold that information sacred, confidential, and tender until they are ready to share their story with the wider body of Christ.