I wrote this piece for The Ministry Collaborative in June. They do such amazing work with ministry leaders and congregations. You can check them out here.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” – Hebrews 12:1
Picture a church running a race that no one cares about. It’s out on the track, bustling down the straightaways, huffing around the turns, striving to keep pace… and no one is watching. No one bought tickets, no one came, and so no one is in the stands cheering. What’s more is that no one is standing to greet them at the finish line because there is no finish line. The stadium is empty and, but for the sound of busy feet hitting the track the track surface, it is silent.
Someone yells, faster! And so they pick up speed, past the point of sheer exhaustion, the church runs. Occasionally they become convinced--this must be the final lap! And so they turn on the burners to round that last bend. Almost there! But there’s just more track, another left turn.
I love the invitation that we run with perseverance the race that is set before us, but I wonder about the race some of us have chosen to run. Maybe it’s the race to survive as an institution, to keep the doors open, to “make it,” to balance the budget, to address building issues… Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that the race set before us is one we’ll “win” when we… what? Bring in more members? Fill our programs with participants? Run a successful stewardship campaign?
Perhaps. But life in a postmodern, post-denominational, post-Christian, post(ish)-pandemic context is teaching us that a spiritually engaged but institutionally suspicious culture simply does not care about churches’ institutional maintenance problems. Attendance slipping? Stewardship woes? Leaky roof? No one cares. And our desperate race to address those problems should conjure a picture of runners sprinting around a track in an empty stadium.
The race we’ve created for ourselves isn’t necessarily the one that’s been set before us. Our striving to cross a finish line into the successful church post-race celebration is, perhaps, a toxic figure of our unimagination—a doubling down on church-as-usual that has little to do with the races people in our community are actually running—races to put food on the table tonight, races to find decent child care, races for affordable housing, dignity, acceptance, connection. Oh, how those races are being run around us!
What race has been set before your church? Could it be that it’s a race others are already running, and your job now is to register, get a number, and find the starting line? Might it be that this race has absolutely nothing with your congregation’s institutional health and everything to do with keeping up with some runners you don’t know yet? And could it be true that there’s a stadium full of people who want you to win that race? Who will wildly cheer for you and the other runners? Who will jump down on the track to run with you? Who will explode with laughter and joy when you cross the finish line?
Let us run with perseverance the race that has been set before us.
I often hear people from predominantly white churches say they wish their congregations were more diverse. And I wonder…
Pandemic Micro-Risk #1: The Chalk-It-Up
Pre-pandemic, I was putting together a resource for congregations called “The Micro-Risk Playbook.” It’s a collection of small innovations and that congregations could take on to nurture a culture of faithful risk-taking in their churches. I have a few of them posted on this website, but a quick read-through and you’ll see they’re not so useful during this pandemic.
So here’s Pandemic Micro-Risk #1: The Chalk-It-Up.
This works for someone in your congregation who’s just spent some time in the hospital and is coming home soon (new baby, surgery, COVID-related...) Pick a day and invite people to FILL that person’s driveway and/or sidewalk with messages of love and support. Seriously, set a record in their neighborhood for applied chalk. Hearts, rainbows, mandalas, flowers, badgers… Have people bring their own chalk and remind them to respect social distancing if more than one group shows up at the same time. Will it take the place of a baby shower or a laying on of hands and prayer? Well, no. But will it say we see you, we love you, we’re with you? I think so. And what might it demonstrate to neighbors about the way your congregation shows up for each other?
The reason your church is managing decline is that you are heavily invested in problems that no one cares about.
Back in February, that’s what I might have said to you, to your church’s leadership, or to your whole congregation. Budget woes, shrinking attendance, fewer children in Sunday school, deferred maintenance on the building, volunteer burnout… These are real problems, of course, and they take lots of time and energy to address. But no one cares. You care, of course. Your church cares. You all care so much you pour gobs of energy and time and angst into solving them. But be clear: no one outside your congregation cares that you have those problems. And an organization that pours most of its problem-solving energy into things that no one outside the organization cares about is working with a recipe for decline.
That’s what I would have told you back in February. And then we would have had a robust conversation about what it looks to begin to shift a congregation’s vision and mission around problems that exist beyond the church’s physical and institutional boundaries. And it would have been fun! Invigorating! Imaginative! But that was so 6 months ago. Ah, we were so young.
Here’s what I’d like to say to your church now: People still don’t care about those problems, and a growing number of them are in your own congregation. Back in March, in the span of a few weeks, your church’s institutional problems faded in people’s minds as others came into focus: isolation, fear, change, uncertainty… And so you invested in connection, however clumsy and awkward it was at first. And sure, it was a huge loss. But it was also an enormous gift because on some level you had to ask yourselves, “When we take away the layers of church that the wider culture already doesn’t care about, with what are we left?”
3 questions and an invitation:
This fall I’m going to lead a series of church leadership retreats. This is something I was already doing before the pandemic, so we’ll just move it online. I want to engage you, your church leadership, or maybe your whole congregation with some deep thinking about where we are and where we might be headed. If this invitation ignites some curiosity in you, I hope you’ll let me know and we can get that lined up.
With Awe and Belonging,
So happy and humbled to have been a part of the ongoing conversation at The Ministry Collaborative. Talking here about how the pandemic has shaped and refocused church ministry in some significant ways.
First of all, what’s a JAM? JAM stands for “Just Another Meeting.” You know – like the one you had last month, and the month before that. The meeting where the same people showed up with the same expectations, sat in the same places, and addressed the same issues. JAMs stifle creativity, they lull us to sleep, and worst of all, they reinforce the role of “leader” as “provider of institutional maintenance” when leaders could be so much more: visionaries, sparks, instigators, creators, connectors, sages…
At the Not-JAM, you serve hot wings. Just because you can. The hotter the better. Then you take pictures of your church leadership team eating hot wings and you post them on Facebook. (By the way, the reason no one looks at your church’s Facebook page is because you don’t have pictures of your leaders eating hot wings.) Also at the Not-JAM, you can sit in a different configuration without tables (should we ever have tables?), make paper hats, begin with a rocks-paper-scissors tournament, make and drink smoothies, watch a short film, pair it with a Bible study, and discuss, or meet somewhere else entirely (See #11 The Away Meeting). Remember that stale meetings often lead to stale outcomes.
The Art Swap is #5 in the Micro-Risk Playbook, a resource for churches striving to be less reasonable, less predictable, and more adept when it comes to faithful risk-taking.
Your church has art. Probably lots of it. Lots of pictures of dead people. Am I right? Dead former pastors, dead church founders, dead theologians... On one hand, they're a tribute to the past. On the other hand, they're kind of creepy. Oh, and let me guess - they're mostly male.
Here's the micro-risk. Swap the art in the main hallway of the church building with the art hanging in Sunday School classrooms or in the children’s education area. This will look different for each community, of course. It may be especially useful for churches where foyers and main hallways primarily display relics of years gone by, or just pictures that hang there because that's just where they've always been. What happens when we replace them for a time with our children’s artwork? What conversations do we start when we replace our wall of retired pastors with the faces of our young people? (Are they also not ministers?) What do we affirm when the first piece of art one encounters in the building is a 2nd grader’s drawing of the Holy Spirit?
Lots of our congregations have rich, faithful histories. But asking ourselves what we want people to encounter during their first ten steps in the building is a rich, faithful question. This micro-play explores what happens when we exchange symbols of our past with symbols of our present and future. It’s a playful way of asking, “Who are we and how do we tell our story?”
(This post was originally featured on Macedonian Ministry's "Leadership Conversations" blog, a great resource for leaders and congregations.)
Time and talent sheets are surveys that ostensibly present opportunities for service in the congregation and invite people to get more involved in church life. By and large they are a waste of time. Congregations are rarely poised to activate all responses in a timely and meaningful way, and even if they were, the message these surveys communicate is so often: “Institutional Maintenance is Hard and We Need Your Help! I Mean, Look At All The Busy Ways We Need Your Help!”
Disrupt the impulse to send out another of these surveys with this Micro-Risk, the “Anti-Time-and-Talent Sheet.” It asks a different set of questions – questions that are immediately relevant to participants and questions that can be wonderfully useful in helping a congregation take its own pulse and listen to its own story as it’s unfolding. “How have you experienced the presence of God in this community?” is a very different question than “What committee are you willing to join?” “What question is challenging you in your faith?” nurtures a church culture that is often squelched by questions like, “How can we use a couple extra hours of your time?”
For what are you most hopeful? What lament do you carry? Who or what are you praying for today? These are great questions for an Anti-Sheet.
And here’s the best part. The Anti-Sheet isn’t a “sheet” at all. Or it can be. But it can also be a giant canvas in the narthex with paint and brushes standing by. Or it can be a text you ask people to send during a quiet moment in worship. Or it can be a conversation starter on each table at your next potluck. Or it can be an actual sheet – twin, queen, or king – draped over a table with sharpie markers scattered around on it. Or it can be…
In the spirit of disruption, regardless of what shape it takes, go ahead and call this thing an “Anti-Time-and-Talent Sheet.” Why? Because you want to send a disruptive message right into the heart of an overscheduled, overprogrammed, and over-busy culture that says, We’re not here to give you one more thing to do. Really. We just value a deeper kind of sharing that doesn’t often happen in other places.
Trust that with one or two meaningful questions, thoughtfully asked and respectfully received, you can learn more about congregants than you can by seeing what jobs they’re willing to do.
At Farm Church we have a prayer wall. It’s really just a 4x8 piece of chicken wire with a bamboo pole at each end. But every Sunday we unroll it and hang it up in our worship space. A basket of cloth ribbons and some markers sit on a table in front of it, and during worship there’s always an open invitation for folks to write down a prayer and tie it on. Names, places, hopes, concerns… Sometimes we take it to the Farmer’s Market too, where we invite people to add a prayer to the wall. Over time it’s become quite colorful.
Occasionally a prayer falls off. While we’re moving it from one place to another or bumping it in and out of my van, sometimes one or two ribbons fall to the floor. I always make a point of tying them back on, nice and tight. Perhaps there’s some theological sense to it – something about our prayers being bound together in God’s hearing and knowing. Or maybe they echo Martin Luther King Jr.’s sense that we’re “tied in a single garment of destiny.”
On Sunday we were getting ready for Farm Church when I found a blue ribbon lying on the floor. I picked it up and read it. It said, “I am called to second chances.”
Of course, I don’t know who wrote it, and I probably never will. Could be someone who gathers with Farm Church all the time, or it could have been somebody at the market who, without saying a word, dropped by the wall to articulate a prayer, a hope, a grief… Or in this case, a statement of faith? A short creed? A mantra? I am called to second chances.
I found myself thinking “Amen” for this person as I tied his or her ribbon back onto the chicken wire. “Amen” and “Aren’t we all?” Second chances at life, second chances at love, second chances at speaking out, second chances at parenting well, second (and third, fourth, fifth…) chances at living fully, alive and awake to God’s prompting. Thousands of chances to pay attention, to be mindful of goodness and grace, to gather ourselves together and step out again into a wild world…
And I love the language, “I am called.” Not “I get second chances” or “I deserve second chances,” but “I am called to second chances.” There’s an intentionality about it that feels powerful. I find myself wondering about this person’s second chances, and then my own – wondering how I might be called to swing again, even though I missed the first time.
To what second chance do you feel called today? What will that look like? And while you’re at it? What would you write on your ribbon? Maybe you’ve been following Farm Church from afar and aren’t able to gather with us here in Durham. Message us or, if you’re comfortable, comment below and I promise to tie your prayer to our wall.
A micro-risk is an easy to try, fun to play with, ok-if-you-fail small risk that, when combined with other micro-risks over time, nurtures a culture of faithful, strategic risk-taking - the kind of culture we need in our churches. You'll find a few here, (here, here, and here), but if you're hungry for more, you can check out my Micro-Risk Playbook here.