Too good to be true

A dear friend writes daily devotionals as part of his own spiritual practice, and he shared this one with us.  His name is Mark Stoeltje, and he is the Executive Director of the Clubhouse in San Antonio, Texas.  Google Mark and the Clubhouse or visit their website at saclubhouse. org for more information about Mark and his work.  This devotional proclaims some ideas that seem to some "too good to be true..."  The idea that "God loves everyone", and "There are many pathways to the living God" have been referred to as wishful thinking and soft theology. As I read the New Testament, Jesus' proclamation of the good news answers the deepest desires of our hearts, as well as our deepest fears.  Often when our deepest need is right in front of us, we are tempted to think "Aahh, that's just too good to be true" and we let cynicism take over.  Believing in the Good News is the leap of faith we're all invited to take.  Here's from Mark:

“God is bigger than people think.” Jimmy Dean 

I’m sitting in the Houston airport on Sunday morning, waiting to board a flight to Seattle. In front of me there is a young man, who I assume is an Orthodox Jew, praying earnestly to the God of his understanding. At first, it’s an unfamiliar and odd sight for me, as he rocks back and forth, mouthing ancient prayers in Hebrew, with what appear to be boxes affixed to his forehead and strapped to his arm. I have seen these boxes before, but know nothing about them. Intrigued, I go to Wikipedia and find that they are Tefillin, and contain parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. They are worn as a remembrance that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.

Watching this young man reminds me how big our God is, and that there is room for us all to commune with our Creator in whatever way is most familiar or comfortable to us. Because I am not a Jew, I don't fully understand his method of communion, but I don’t need to, just as he doesn’t need to understand mine. 

God is big enough for all of us. Each of us are individuals, with unique personalities and unique gifts. And the ways in which we humans commune with God are infinite: through nature, art, music, dancing, fire, writing, praying the rosary, meditating – the list goes on and on. 

A definition of God I remember from some unknown philosopher is “that which there is no greater than.” By this definition, there can only be one God. But there are many of us, and each of us is like a snowflake - completely unique. We are given the dignity, the choice, and the gifts to commune with the God of our understanding in our own deeply personal way. I can’t dance, but I can write. I am not a musician, but I am an artist. Through the prayerful rhythm of this young man’s rocking, God is reminding me that I can be who I am and give other people the dignity to be who they are, not only in prayer but in life.

“In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.” John 14:2a

Scars tell us our past but do not determine our future

Who said "scars tell us our past but do not determine our future?" I read or heard that someplace but I cannot remember where. It is a good mantra for the new year.

I hear on my crime shows about felons pleading their case during the sentencing phase. "I grew up in an abusive home. I was cradled inside a dysfunctional family, therefor it was predictable that I would be a criminal." The judge rightfully points out many people grow up in abusive, dysfunctional families. Not all turn out to be criminals. Some say the scars of my past will not determine my future.

I have joined others in citing the news articles which say genetics plays the largest role in whether or not we are overweight. "I am big boned! I ate at McDonalds before the days of salads and calorie information were posted on the menu! My mother raised me on a southern comfort food diet!" But I know I can do something about my weight. Exercise, portion control, balanced meals, and in all good things, moderation. The scars of my past will not determine my future.

I was a lousy parent to my kids. I worked too much. I tried to climb the ladder of perceived, professional excellence. I would say that I was making sacrifices so I could provide a comfortable living for my family when, in fact, my family wanted my time more than a expensive presents. Now I have grandchildren. I accept the scars of my parenting but those scars will not determine my future as a loving and attentive grandparent.

We approach the end of this calendar year. 2015 may have been a year of regret. We wish we could have this year back. Scars of disappointment, broken relationships, and missed opportunities continued to follow us all year long but remember, scars tell us our past but do not determine our future. Here comes a brand new year. Here comes a fresh start. New opportunities to transcend our past as we vault into a hopeful future. We can do it. Let this be the year of forgiveness. Forgive those who have hurt you in the past as you pray the ones you have hurt will, in turn, forgive you. We can and will do things differently in the coming year. The scars of our past will not determine our future!


Do You Believe in the Virgin Birth?

Have you lined out your sermon for Christmas Eve? Do you have your Sunday School lessons planned through Advent? Do you shudder when you hear the phrases Immaculate Conception, or the Virgin Birth? Do you hear the biblical story of angels visiting Joseph and think "wow, God is the father of Mary's child?..... I can see the Holy Spirit making it happen, no problem!" Relax

As pastor I have had two conversations that sound radically different but in reality, they are very similar. One parishioner said "I cannot believe in the virgin birth. That is not the way babies are made. My early church background insisted that I leave my brain at the door, swallow this natural law defying miracle, and just believe. I cannot do that!" Another parishioner said "Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. When we call Jesus the son of God, I believe that in the most literal manner. It is important, it is essential!"

To both of them I ask the question, "Is belief (or not believing) in the virgin birth a core component to your Christian faith?" Both answered with an unequivocal "Yes!" I then asked "Does you belief in (or refusal to believe in) the virgin birth make a difference to your discipleship of Jesus today, right now?" They both answered "absolutely!" Then remembering the words of John Wesley I said "If your heart is as my heart then give me your hand." I told both of them "We are on the same page."

Please don't get hung up on the virgin birth this Christmas. Please let go of your need to have a tidy, empirically verifiable birth story. This season, as your wander through the nativity, rather than wondering whether Mary was a virgin or not, refrain from sharing what you think happened at Jesus' birth, share what you feel about this magical story. God's hope is that you will choose the path that is most helpful in understanding that God will do whatever is necessary to breathe hope in your life today, right now!

Christian Code Talkers

I love the story of code talkers. During WW2 Native Americans were recruited to send messages across radio waves in the  Cherokee language. Anyone who did not grow up deeply imbedded in the Cherokee nation would never be able to translate the message into German, therefor the allies had an unbreakable code.  

Very few folks still speak Cherokee today. The elders of their tribe are trying desperately to keep this language alive but sadly, fewer and fewer of the young Native Americans are interested in learning this ancient way of speaking, but unlike the Spanish or French languages, it is a very hard language to learn. (did I mention the Germans tried to learn Cherokee but never got it?).

In much the same way, we elders, ordained and lay, stubbornly refuse to let go of the ancient language of our Christian church. We want to teach the history and tradition of the church which is a good thing but we insist on teaching, preaching, and doing our liturgy in words that are as difficult as any in the Cherokee language. Not difficult for us, mind you, we grew up imbedded in an ancient church culture, but for the newcomers, the seekers, those who have never or rarely ever attended worship service.  People are on a search for meaning but the established church has little chance with them because we are speaking a form of Christian Cherokee.

I humbly offer the following as an attempt to translate from the equivalent of Christian Cherokee into understandable, modern day English;

sin and forgiveness..... addiction and recovery,

redemption and grace....... second, third, fourth, fifth chances (you get the picture)  or do overs

conversion..... 180 degree turn around. Head one way, about face, and head the opposite way.

faith.... live life 'as if' something is true.

faith in Jesus.... do what Jesus tells us to do. Doesn't matter if you like it or not.

repentance .... I am truly sorry and I am not just saying that to get out of this tight spot. I will never do it again. (see that 180 degree turn around thing)

Trinitarian formula.... not father, son and holy spirit, not creator, redeemer, and sustainer but God is a mystery and will show up in whatever way you most need for that moment and time.

kingdom of God on earth..... Everyone on this planet treating all persons with dignity and respect

It is with joy that I come before you. It is a blessing and a privilege, and an honor to be with you.... thanks for having me.

(And for us Methodists,) moving on to perfection.... getting my life in alignment with dignity and respect for all persons.

This is not a comprehensive list, just a starting place. Change some of these or add your own. Get creative but for God's sake, stop using language that is at best unhelpful and at worst, misleading. No more Christian code talking Talk to be understood so we can fulfill our purpose, to make new disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world.





Grace Over Law Everytime

Back when I was pastoring a local church full time I had an extraordinary experience. After worship one Sunday, someone with a deep Southern Baptist background came to greet me at the door of our sanctuary. With much emotion he told me "I have been in the Baptist church for years and this is the first time I have ever heard a message of grace preached from the pulpit." Now, to be honest, my first impulse was to welcome the meal which fed my oversized ego. I answered "Thank you for your kind words!" But after further examination I admit, I don't believe him. Southern Baptists might not see eye to eye with United Methodists on particular issues of theology but my granddaddy was a southern Baptist pastor and I know he believed in grace. So why did this faithful Baptist disciple believe this was the first message of grace he had heard in the church? Because, though we preach both law and grace, our pew sitters are more likely to feel the heavy hand of the law and never hear the grace.

The Roman Catholic church is meeting this week regarding family issues, divorce, civil unions, indissolubility of marriage, acceptance of gays and lesbians, and who might be able to receive communion. Don't expect any real change in church doctrine at this meeting, yet a breath of fresh air has collided with the keepers of tradition.  Pope Francis, in an AP article this morning written by Nicole Winfield, gave this counsel to a gathering of Cardinals and Bishops:  "The church's law cannot be an impediment to its mission of mercy."  He continued, "Be open to the surprises of God."

Grace over law seems to me to sum up the message of the New Testament.  Karen Vannoy,  my life companion and career co-pastor with me, has said many times:  "When I get to my time of accountability before God I will trust myself to the mercy of Christ. Whenever confronted with a decision between grace and law, I chose grace every time." That is a great way to live out our faith.

So my prayer is grace abounds in all our Churches, through both doctrine and practice. It seems that the Good News indeed has law taking a back seat to the amazing grace of Christ.

I am not going back to Sunday School until it is more interesting


Our Sunday school is in need of a make over. found this compelling rant  from a Utah humorist, Robert Kirby, recently published in the Salt Lake Tribune, and except for doctrinal differences, everything he says could be said of most adult Sunday School programs in any denomination:

"In my 50-plus years as a Mormon, I've attended, taught and ditched a variety of special Sunday School classes. Gospel doctrine, Family History, temple preparation, Gospel principles, Teacher inmprovement, etc. All of those classes were approved and correlated by the LDS church. None of them came close to addressing the needs of my own particular special group of people -- those who are bored out of their skulls by Sunday school. Before you say "Well, you should go to Sunday school anyway. Maybe if you participated more, it would not be boring." I did and it wasn't. That's the problem. My way of participating when I am bored is to pick a fight. I don't even have to agree with the side I choose. It is just a way to get my interest up.

For example, in family history class I quickly reached a saturation point about the importance of submitting our ancestors names to the temple.

TEACHER; And so brothers and sisters, they are waiting and pleading for their temple work to be done immediately.

ME; Hang on. In the grand scope of eternity my ancestors have not been dead a minute. I'm the one with the time management problem, not them. So they can just shut up and wait their turn.

After I was lovingly uninvited to attend that class, I started the Foyer class. It was just a group of equally bored ward members cutting Sunday School in order to discuss gospel topics of interest to us. The course material was every bit as varied as God intended things to be- ranging from mission experiences to employment, to "hell no, I'm not shaving off my beard just because the stake president says so."

The class grew in size until members of the bishopric started dropping by and hinting that we all should be in real Sunday school. They left when we invited them to teach the Foyer class the following week.

I'd go back to Sunday school if there were classes that addressed my particular needs and interests as a member. For example, I'd definitely sign up for Sunday school classes titled "Worthy Liberalism," and "Emergency Armed Preparedness."

Given that my spouse does not go to church with me -- a condition shared by more than a few members -- why not a special class for people who already know they aren't going to the celestial kingdom? "Gospel Impracticalities" is a great title for a class that examines what parts of the plan of salvation actually work.

"The Old Testament" would certainly keep my interest up if every Sunday were an in-depth examination of the stupidest things human beings have ever convinced themselves to do in the name of God. It might happen but I won't hold my breath. In the meantime, I will stay with the most remedial Sunday school class offered -- the ward nursery. They got snacks.

Increasing Lay Leadership

Last blog entry we outlined steps one to three of a six step process for having meaningful lay leadership at an annual men or women's retreat.  This blog we outline steps four through six in the process.

Step four should find us still about ten to eleven months out from the event.  This second meeting should also last only 90 minutes.  If a retreat chair has been selected (preferable), the pastor and chair should get together before the meeting to clarify the goals for the second meeting.  The purpose of this meeting is to identify additional leadership needed for the retreat, discuss how to  reach and motivate people to attend.  Having secured a speaker is not enough to make a retreat work.  Adults do not learn well simply by listening to a lecture, regardless how well delivered.  We learn by reflecting back the ideas presented and an honest exchange with others, and this can only be done in small groups.  Small groups need discussion leaders, that is a person to ensure that everyone in the small group has a chance to speak, and no one person dominates the discussion.  With just a little training, many people can lead a small group discussion.  Begin with the number of people you hope will attend, and hope for more than you had the year before!  Let's say you hope to have 50 people.  You need about 7 small groups of 7 people each, and therefore you need 7 small group leaders.  Some of these can come from persons already gathered around the table, but encourage the group to identify those outside of the planning committee.  In this way, you  enlarge the base of people who will commit to attending.

     Step five is to determine whether or not the topic is universal enough to reach a broad group of people.  For example, relationships when you're married can be different from when you're single.  To use another example, if 'fatherhood' was chosen, everyone is not a father.  But everyone has a father.  So determine how many other opportunities you need to create to serve the diversity of people you hope will attend.  Here's a list of possible workshops for a retreat on relationships:  Marriage, Friendships, Workplace, Friendships in the Bible, Intimacy, Conflict, Growing spiritually through friendship, etc.

Here's another example using Fatherhood:  The Changing role of Fathers; Fatherhood and Work; Fatherhood in the Bible; Divorced Fathers; Stay at Home Dads; Caring for an elderly father; Making peace with your father, etc. 

       Regardless of what your topic is, you want to create an interest from as broad a group as possible.  In addition to the small group discussion leaders which will follow the Speaker's presentation, also offer workshops which take the topic even deeper.  So if you offer 5 or 6 workshops, identify five or six more people in the church to lead the workshops.  You have now increased your leadership group by more than a dozen people.  Assign calls to each of the possible leaders, and give the committee 6-8 weeks to secure the leaders.  If identified people can't do it, make sure you've brainstormed enough extra names to get the job done if someone turns you down.  

         Step six is hopefully your last meeting, although if it requires two more meetings, you're still far enough out to make it work.  The last meetings are reporting back on the calls made, meeting with the Speaker if desired and/or available, working on logistics for the retreat, publicity, etc.  Each Committee member should have a specific responsibility.  It might be registration, or snacks, recreation or name tags, worship or recreation or get acquainted exercises, or all of the above.  Involve as many people as possible.  Encourage everyone involved to invite and bring their friends.  This is the outreach part.  If your topic is on target (addressing a deeply felt need) and involves 25 people, you will reach your target goal of 50!

Increasing Lay Participation

      It seems endemic in church life today to have one of two problems:  a. lack of lay leadership; b. lack of pastoral leadership.  Some churches may even have both.  As pastors, we have to face up to  our own lack of leadership.  We can't blame that on anyone else, even though most of us were never trained to be leaders.  There's plenty of information out there to build leadership skills, as well as  strategies for improving our skills on an ongoing basis.  Maybe some of us didn't figure leadership into our set of job skills, but only a year into your first year in ministry will disabuse you of any notions that we're only called to love our people.  We are called to lead them as well.  Some pastors are afraid to really lead because of the criticism their ideas have brought, but without pastoral leadership, most churches will experience decline. 

      And what of our laity?  What kind of lay leadership are you looking for? Are you clear about what you are expecting from your elected officers?  Most of the laity we've worked with report confusion and occasionally even dissatisfaction with the leadership opportunities at church.  They often feel that opportunities in ministry are too limited and even menial, and  in decision making they're only expected to rubber stamp someone else's ideas.  On the other side, many pastors feel they cannot count on their lay leadership to follow through with their commitments.  How do we avoid this kind of conundrum?

      Let's take an event like we considered last blog:  the annual men/women's retreat.  In the case illustrated, the pastor had made all the decisions.  Then a few weeks out from the event, the pastor asked the people to take on some of the support tasks of leadership. This strategy is certainly better than the pastor making all the decisions AND doing everything him/herself.  But their is an alternative.  It requires time, risk, and letting go.  A good outcome may not always occur.  Yet even with these drawbacks, it is the only way to secure meaningful lay leadership.

      One year out from the event, the pastor draws together a planning team of no less than six and no more than 15 people to plan the upcoming men's/women's retreat.  The pastor leads a discussion on what good topics might be.  Consideration is given to what kind of topics women/men are interested in today, and what the desired outcome is for the retreat itself (reach newcomers, deepen discipleship or spirituality, promote fellowship, etc.) Drawing from TV, movies, books, magazines, what are the issues for the population you are trying to reach?  If it's young fathers, what do they face? If it's working women, what are their issues?  The pastor's role is to keep the discussion lively, on target, and comprehensive.  Guide the group into the focus of a single topic, for example, the importance of relationships, or making time for oneself, or the changing role of fatherhood.  This should take about 15-20 minutes.  To take longer than that will only derail the group into a philosophical discussion about modern life and its complexity.  One should communicate to the planning group ahead of time to come prepared with what each one believes to be the most important issue facing the target group today. Allow the Spirit to work among you to quickly build a consensus on the topic.  Hopefully the lay leadership will take this process to a decision on their own, but if not, the pastor should guide the group into what s/he believes is the best topic.

     The pastor then leads a discussion about the topic chosen based on his/her own experience.  If it's relationships, then what issues are faced by men/women today?  Intimacy?  Time?  Work demands?  Children? Fear of rejection?  You get the idea.  Let the Spirit lead the conversation into deep and meaningful waters.  If anyone doesn't participate, draw them out.  That's how this works to build investment, passion, interest and surface the best leaders. This conversation should take 45 minutes of your 1 1/2 hour meeting. You have 25-30 minutes remaining. 

      Step three is to review your budget, and then brainstorm possible speakers.  Make sure the suggestions are realistic and possible.  Guide the conversation to settle on 1-3 possibilities.  Decide who will contact the possible speaker(s), and in what order if the first choice is not available.  Adjourn the meeting with the next meeting date to be after a speaker has been secured. Set deadlines, and offer to help however needed.  Either the pastor or a selected Committee Chair should follow up to make sure a speaker is committed before the next meeting.

Next week:  Steps 4-6




Do you want to double your attendance at your next church outing? Here is how to do it. One local church pastor had already planned a men's retreat for his congregation.  He had a great theme, the date was set, the retreat center reserved, but one step was missing.4-6 weeks before the experience the pastor asked "How do I get the men to come?" Simple really. He began calling. Communion was to be served at the end of this event so he called on one man to bring the challis and plate, another man to bring the bread, and still another to bring the grape juice. Snacks were to be served so he secured a commitment from one man to bring healthy snacks and another man to bring sweets. Meals were to be shared so he assigned supper to two men and breakfast to two others. One man he recruited to bring beverage, another place servings, and still another to watch after room set up. Another man from the church was assigned to be a host for the guest speaker while 5 other men were asked to be discussion/table leaders. The genius of this plan was that no one was asked to fill more than one task. Count them up, along with the pastor and speaker there is guarantee of 20 persons in attendance before anyone actually registers for the event!  If even half of the above group brings a friend, then your attendance would be thirty! 

This works for every event in your church. Fellowship suppers, (table cloths, menu planning, decorations, room set up), Bible Study (room set up, Bibles placed on the table, snacks, phone calls to absentees), Sunday School classes for children and adults, mission projects, etc. The idea is a simple one. Recruit persons to do simple tasks and that will insure their attendance at the desired event. Too many persons say "It is just easier to do these tasks myself," and as a clergy or lay leader in the church, we know this to be true. Recruiting takes phone calls and emails and a bit more of your time but it is worth it. To start with we aren't really shooting for efficiency, are we? In ministry we want participation, investment, passion,. and spiritual growth. These things are not achieved by passive spectators.   Few things are more depressing than a poorly attended, quality event in ministry. Critical mass is difficult to achieve in small and mid size churches. Double your attendance. Do yourself a favor, stop doing all  the functions yourself,  and recruit persons to fulfill specific functions that will make your ministry event run smoothly.

Coming next.... How to build even more interest, passion and investment in your church events

Cultural Changes

Any time you go in and you have to change a culture, it’s always smart to start heavy handed, and you can always ease up a little, if necessary.  But if you go in easy, it’s hard to put the hammer down after that.”     Tom Herman, Head Football Coach, University of Houston

Okay, it isn’t often that I would quote a football coach about anything.  Tom Herman is the new head coach for the University of Houston.  He’s not your average football coach. Tom is a member of Mensa, a smart guy with lots of experience in cultural change.  When he said cultural change is what it takes to turn around football teams, I perked up.

What does changing a football team have to do with changing a church?  The process of changing the culture is the same.  While pastors and leaders never need to use a ‘hammer’, they do need to make clear from the beginning Jesus’ mandate and vision for the church, and what needs to happen for the church to move forward.  Common instruction to new pastors is – don’t change anything for the first year. Just preach, and love the people.  In other words, win everyone over first.

Tom says that when he first started out as a young coach, he wanted everybody to see him as a great, easy going guy,  one everyone could talk to and everyone liked.  When he tried that, he discovered that instituting a new culture was harder than ever.  The same thing is true for churches and the old proverbial wisdom about moving slowly and keeping people happy has brought us where we are today: stagnant and declining.

We have undersold the true expectations of our churches and our members.  We celebrate ‘pennies for mission’ instead of sacrificial giving.  We triumph clean grounds and beautiful stained glass instead of missional drive and servant ministry.  We settle for occasional attendance and happy congregations over justice and devotion.

Pastors don’t have control over a congregation the way a coach has over the team.  But what we do as leaders is very much like coaching.  We set clear expectations and high standards.  Our leadership must include encouragement and praise, not when we see baby steps, but when we see fidelity to our true purpose and vision. If we compromise basic principles in order to make people happy, our leadership is just confusing, and in the end we will all lose. 

“Children are keen observers but poor interpreters of adult behavior.” I can’t remember who said that, but it's a truism and applies to all forms of leadership I think.  People are keen observers but often poor interpreters.  What people see pastors and church leaders do always matters.  They may not understand our behavior, but the antidote to that is not to change our behavior. The antidote is to be constant interpreters:  of the church’s purpose, mission and vision, and offer clarity about the behaviors needed to bring us into alignment as we press forward.