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,
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.
Last Sunday was a big dill at Farm Church. For one day, we change our name to Pickle Church. “What’s that?” you ask? Well, try to imagine a congregation making about 80 jars of pickles in the middle of worship. Pickling + Church = Pickle Church.
Why? That may be the more pertinent question. The “why” behind Pickle Church begins with a simple cucumber and an acute awareness of the ways in which even that simple cucumber embodies the handiwork of a creative, loving God. Its shape, its color, its ripening on the vine, its nutrition, its smell… God has been at work fashioning that cucumber, blessing it with life and a vitality all its own. Sitting there on the cutting board, that cucumber is a psalm of praise to a God who knows how to make good things! And so when we give thanks for God’s gift of just one simple cucumber – when we recognize the DNA of God’s creative action in that one simple fruit – how can we not begin to see it in other places? In all our good food, in our neighbor’s eyes, in the movements and needs of strangers, in the whole spinning, expansive universe! That’s essentially why we did Pickle Church.
We pickled cucumbers, okra, jalepeño peppers, onions, carrots… And in the “sermons” that took place around our tables, we asked each other questions:
All along the way with Farm Church, we’ve been striving to blur the lines between worship, work, and play – to suggest that, in fact, our worship of God is lived out in our day-to-day lives in ways that deepen our sense of the Spirit and compel us to care for the needs of others. Our aim with Pickle Church (and coming soon… Sauerkraut Church, Salad Church...?) was to pronounce God’s presence in the gifts of the earth and even to suggest that our kitchens and dinner tables might become sanctuaries of adoration and thanksgiving for the good gifts of heaven and earth.
At the close of our worship we gathered around this prayer/poem, written by the late John O’Donohue called “Grace After Meals.” It’s become a favorite of mine. We often think of saying “grace” before meals. Once in a while, it’s good to pray when the meal is over. If it ever strikes you to try it, here’s a great prayer to share…
GRACE AFTER MEALS
by John O’Donohue
We end this meal with grace
For the joy and nourishment of food,
The slowed time away from the world
To come into presence with each other
And sense the subtle lives behind our faces,
The different colours of our voices,
The edges of hungers we keep private,
The circle of love that unites us.
We pray the wise spirit who keeps us
To change the structures that make others hunger
And that after such grace we might now go forth
And impart dignity wherever we partake.
According to Seth Godin, there are four steps to marketing. Here they are…
Step 1: Invent a thing worth making, a story worth telling, a contribution worth talking about.
Step 2: Design and build it in a way that people will actually benefit from and care about.
Step 3: Tell the story to the right people in the right way. (This is the story everyone gets all excited about.)
Step 4: The last step is so often overlooked: The part where you show up, regularly, consistently and generously, for years and years, to organize and lead and build confidence in the change you seek to make.
For just over two years, Farm Church has reveled in steps 1-3. Dreaming up the concept of Farm Church, honing the vision, imagining a church that meets on a farm and leverages all of the resources of that farm to address hunger… Choosing Durham, North Carolina and moving our families there, spending months networking with faith groups, nonprofits, and individuals, forging relationships with those who would help us take off… And oh my gosh, telling the story to people in the right way - honing our elevator speech, sharing at farmers markets, music festivals, in the pick-up line at school… For months now, we’ve pretty much nailed steps 1-3.
Now here we are. Step 4 – the oft overlooked – the part where we start showing up, regularly, consistently, and generously, for years and years, organizing and building confidence in the chance we seek to make. And I must confess, Godin’s words feel a little daunting to me! But I’m also drawn to his assertion that there are no substitutes for day-in, day-out work of living into our dreams.
I’ve also started to wonder about facets of Step 4 that are already happening…
Step 4 has started to come into focus as individuals and families keep showing up to be Farm Church Sunday morning after Sunday morning, Wednesday night after Wednesday night.
Step 4 showed up when we harvested our very first yellow squash a few weeks ago and stopped to imagine the thousands and thousands of pounds that will follow over the months and years ahead.
Step 4 came to mind when Farm Church gathered this past Sunday and we wrestled with the problem of human pain and suffering.
Step 4 has been unfolding in our weekly Wednesday night gatherings at the Farm Church garden, where we’ve begun a long-term relationship with some North Carolina red clay soil. Compost, compost, and more compost!
Step 4 occurred to me the other day when a few of us were wrestling Bermuda grass from the ground at the Farm Church garden. If you’ve not encountered Bermuda grass before, you’ve been spared a battle with a most devious, never-say-die weed that simply will not go quietly to weed heaven, if such a place exists.
Step 4 happened a few Sundays ago when, during a quiet moment in worship, I looked up and noticed a couple of people with their heads together, quietly praying.
There this amazing lyric in an Avett Brothers’ song, “Head Full of Doubt,” and it’s been rattling around in my head for a few months now (Thanks Raimee!) -
Decide what to be and go be it
There was a dream and one day I could see it
Like a bird in a cage I broke in and demanded that somebody free it
Those words come to mind as I contemplate the way that Farm Church has moved from a middle-of-the-night dream to its evolving reality of people, worship, theology, seeds, compost, zucchini, children, chickens, questions, gardens… Breaking into our dreams and demanding their freedom in this world is the wonderful, hard work of Step 4. It’s experienced in the quiet but lasting commitments we make to each other, to our work, and to our future.
Looking back on the last few months, I am so profoundly grateful for those who have joined the Farm Church story in some way. I really feel like together we are, in Godin’s words, “leading and building confidence in the change we seek to make.”
So, yeah. Grateful. Humbled. A little overwhelmed. And ready to take another step.
How about you? What’s your “Step 4” these days?
This is a story you might not be fully aware of. Back in April, this was the Farm Church garden…
Looks like a big ol’ lawn, doesn’t it? It does and it is, but what you can’t quite see in this photo is that there is almost no topsoil. Underneath the grass is a giant sheet of red clay that’d been baking in the hot North Carolina sun for years and years. In fact, when we tried to till this soil with some pretty powerful tillers, the clay said, “No, I don’t think so.”
Here’s Allen wrestling with this beast of a tiller, and while some of the grass is getting pulled, the clay is sharply and quite effectively rebuking his efforts. My tiller is in the background, idle because quite frankly, I needed a breather. Cutting into hard-packed, sun-baked clay was an experience our muscles remembered sorely for days.
Then we made one of our better decisions. We hired this guy:
We’re so grateful for Dave and his little but mighty tractor. In just a couple of days, he got our garden beds broken up to the point where we could get started.
We have 24 beds, each 4 feet x 25 feet. (so 2,400 total square feet of tillage) Here they are topped with a little finished compost…
Months and months ago, we began to cultivate this dream of a church that meets on a farm and leverages all of the resources of that farm to address food insecurity. And while we’re not there yet (we meet on a different farm in Durham and this farm still has a way to go) it is so utterly thrilling to see this dream become a reality. Each bed cut, each weed pulled, each shovel-full turned… It’s way more than a lawn becoming a garden – it’s truly a dream coming to life.
And then this happened…
People! Farm Church people! They came, they tilled, they dug, weeded, talked, laughed, prayed, turn compost…
It’s been happening every week, and this has been the joy of Farm Church – that we are becoming a place where people sense God’s direction in the deliberate cultivation of soil, the gradual transformation of land, and the miracles of growth and life we see each week in the garden and in each other.
To all of you who’ve been in tune with our journey these past few months, once again thank you. I hope that one of these days you can sink a trowel into the soil with us and plant a few seeds. But even if that never happens, I want you to know that you are a part of Farm Church. Thank you for your prayers, for your support, and for your belief that this new way of being church is even possible in the first place. From all of us at Farm Church, we’re so, so grateful.
Grace and Peace,
Last week we at Farm Church produced our first wheelbarrow full of composted soil. Maybe you hear that and you think (perhaps sarcastically), “Wow. Soil. Incredible. You don’t say.” To which I say, “Yes, I know! Soil made from banana peels, grass clippings, carrot peels, melon rinds, eggshells, wood chips… Rick, black, living soil! Yes!” Because I’m not just talking about any old dirt or even the “good stuff” you buy in a bag at the hardware store. The soil I’m referring to is the culmination of many families lightening their trash load and opting instead to save veggie and fruit scraps in 5-gallon buckets on their back porches. I’m talking about Sally, a woman who is part of Farm Church and has made numerous trips to coffee shops to collect their spent coffee grounds. I’m talking about our volunteers who have mixed kitchen scraps with dead leaves with grass clippings with hardwood mulch – turning and turning. I’m talking about Farm Church’s tiniest volunteers – worms and microbes going to work on that pile for weeks and weeks, gradually transforming it into a nutrient-packed concoction ready for our garden.
So last week we took a moment to just stand there and marvel at our wheelbarrow, brimming with wonderful, loamy, black soil that we made. Then we took a tablespoon, scooped up some of our finished compost, and we passed it around the circle. Our actions were not unlike those of connoisseurs inspecting a fine wine or a team of chefs smelling a newly made soup. We eyeballed it, we held it up to the light, we sniffed it… Mmmm, earthy with a citrus bouquet.
And then we allowed our minds to be blissfully sucked into the mind-blowing, soul-expanding vortex of this tiny piece of incredible information:
One tablespoon of soil contains more living organisms than there are people on the entire planet.
[Insert sound of mind being blown here]
Can you believe that? One tablespoon! Over seven billion microscopic lifeforms living, thriving, eating, growing, reproducing, dying… A massive ecosystem managing life in that little spoon. It’s utterly amazing.
The scripture that came to mind was from the gospel of John where Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) And while I’m pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t thinking about finished compost in that context, I’m struck that my own sense of abundant life isn’t often that, well, abundant.
Say the word “abundance” and I can easily picture a closet stuffed with too many shirts, a storage unit brimming with tools I struggle to find, a pantry with probably more than a few outdated items… Or I picture the abundance I sometimes wish I had – the abundance I fool myself into thinking will be the solution to life’s dilemmas – the big paycheck, the deep bank account, the plentiful retirement savings…
Holding that tablespoon teeming with unseen, abundant life, I couldn’t help but think about the abundance all around me, and abundance I often take for granted – the rich diversity in my city, the endless moments of opportunity that await each day, prospects and possibilities for goodness, kindness, and mercy that come around each corner, yearning to bless each encounter, each word, each relationship… This is the unseen abundance I often forget about, but it’s plentiful and it’s everywhere.
Think about it this way. If one tablespoon of soil could be so amazingly abundant with life, what might that suggest about the world around you? What unseen abundance is waiting to bless your existence? And speaking of your existence, how are you perhaps more abundant than you thought you were?
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.