Where Jesus Would Put the Kids in Worship

Learning about worship in the pray ground

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are: Read more

What Language Shall I Borrow?

I can still feel a bit of burning embarrassment from the conversation that happened nearly 12 years ago. My dad, a pastor and theologian, helped me pack up and move all of my belongings from Massachusetts down to Louisville, where I was about to begin seminary. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, we somehow got on the subject of hot button issues at seminaries, and he mentioned the use of gendered language for God.

Many students came from traditions that held firmly to male images and language for God. Some prayers always began, “Father God…” My seminary, along with others, encouraged a more expansive use of language for God, engaging images that were more traditionally masculine and feminine or gender-neutral. Students would be encouraged to recognize and draw from the rich and expansive store of such language in the Bible. And for some students, that bordered on blasphemous – or even crossed the line.

The sting of embarrassment came for me as I remembered the application essays I had so carefully written and edited. My internal debate wasn’t whether or not I could use “he” to refer to God; it was whether the “h” should be capitalized. I had come from more conservative theological traditions, and most of what I had seen was God as He. At the same time, that capital letter seemed to thrust a masculine God at me in a way that just didn’t seem right. If asked, I would have said in a heartbeat that I didn’t believe that God is male. And yet, there it was, burned in my memory – repeated references to God with male pronouns in my first introduction to my future professors.

The conversation on language for God was not a new one, just one to which I had not yet been exposed. Beyond seminary, many students who learned to exercise care in their language went right back to the familiar and comfortable pronouns upon graduation. Others of us were serving in church contexts where throwing in feminine pronouns might have gotten us run out of the pulpit, so we at least avoided using masculine language. Given my own commitments, and recognizing the constraints of my context, that was my practice, though I occasionally and intentionally used female imagery with some gentle education. Read more

Becoming a Sanctuary Church

“Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.” In resistance to the Executive Order banning refugees from seven majority Muslim countries and discriminating against Muslims, those have been the words on our sermon boards on both sides of our church. Until the Executive ban is fully rescinded, until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is no longer directed to raid immigrant homes in our community, and until DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals) candidates no longer live in fear of unfair deportation, that sign will continue to hang prominently in front of the church I serve: The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. As Christians seeking after God’s justice and because of our physical positioning — just four blocks east of the White House — we feel a deep calling to stand up as a Sanctuary Church.

Last spring Kathy Doan, a ruling elder at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and a longtime advocate for the immigrant community, and Maricelly Malave, Co-Founder of Sanctuary DMV (District Maryland Virginia), met with me to share an evolving need for churches and communities to join the New Sanctuary Movement. They shared the history of this ancient practice for temples, churches, and even whole cities to declare themselves as a place of refuge for people accused of crimes in which they feared unfair retribution. They shared that churches in the U.S. first provided sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves pass to freedom during the Civil War. In the 1970s, when refugees from the civil wars in Central America came to the United States seeking shelter, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees seeking asylum. Many were deported and faced death squads on their return. In response to this dire situation, the Sanctuary Movement was formed. At its peak, there were over 500 member congregations. In 1986, the Sanctuary Movement won the inclusion of Central America as part of our immigration laws.

Starting the summer of 2014, we started seeing the return of the humanitarian crisis with thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and forced gang participation in Central America seeking safely in the United States. Moreover, eleven million undocumented persons are living in the United States, many of whom have lived here for more than ten years. These members of our community — these friends, family members and neighbors — are all at risk of deportation. Read more

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

Campfire Church

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

S’mores

Q: What do you do when life gives you lemons?
A: You make s’mores.

For about a month, we smelled natural gas outside the sanctuary doors. But as it often happens with a group, everyone thought someone else would call. I finally took it upon myself to call Atlanta Gas one Thursday morning. Atlanta Gas responded within 30 minutes and determined that we had a significant leak in one of our pipes buried under ground. To be safe, they shut off our gas.

This was the beginning of February. Our new property chair immediately called the necessary repair companies. By Friday morning, he had discovered:

  1. There was a hole the size of a silver dollar in our pipe. We were blessed to be there.
  2. The leak was buried too deep for most companies to fix.
  3. The only company willing to do the repairs couldn’t get to it until after the weekend.

I got the phone call at 11:00 a.m. on Friday morning that we would not have heat in the church for worship. Temperatures were expected to be near freezing all weekend, so the property chair suggested we cancel worship.

“Give me an hour. I think we can have fun with this,” I told him. I had no idea what I was going to do; but as soon as I hung up the phone, I began to brainstorm. One hour later, I came up with a plan that I loved. Read more

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.