Thursday, April 28, 2016

Welcome to the Mission Field


Last year the theme for the New England Synod Assembly was “Holy Experiment in Progress” and we launched into an open laboratory where congregations were encouraged to ask good questions, test hypotheses and try something new. We were given permission to take  risks and even given permission to fail, trusting that God is with us through it all. Why all the fuss about experiments, innovation and change? Because for many of our congregations here in New England  “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t working anymore. Church membership is declining, energy is waning, finances are dwindling, and buildings are crumbling. We’ve tried everything in our collective toolboxes, but nothing seems to be working anymore. 

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey. 
From “The Real Work” by Wendell Berry 

What happened?  We could  blame cultural shifts, technology, economics, politics, or a combination of them all,  but maybe there is also another  reason why we’re seeing decline. Maybe we just became too comfortable. Instead of reaching out and keeping up to date with our neighbors, we got a little too cozy in our pews and a little too set in our ways. We fell out of touch. Families, lifestyles, and the way people thought about affiliation, faith, and spirituality changed, and in  many ways our congregations were left behind.  Here in New England this hits home even more than in the rest of country; five of our New England states have the honor of being the ranked least religious in the United States by the 2015 Pew Religious Landscape Study.

Yet…what a great time to be the church! New England is veritable mission field; filled with opportunity to meet  our neighbors, develop new relationships, and share the joy and peace and hope that is Christ Jesus with people who may have never even encountered God’s message of unconditional love, mercy, and grace. We are in a position to re-discover the church’s roots as we re-connect with the life of our communities. The early church grew through relationships, people meeting people, having conversations, gathering for fellowship, as well as for worship and prayer. It was about  connecting God’s work with the lives of all God’s people. Listening, having intentional conversations, and building relationships is also the first step for any 21st century mission developer. Mission developers are driven by the promise that God invites everyone to be a participants in an amazing new world order through Jesus Christ: where love triumphs death, hope overcomes fear, and where eternal life is not only possible but freely given. They specialize in being present, showing up, and meeting people where they are.

Moses said to God, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.”
God said, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end."
                                                                            Exodus 33:12-14, The Message
It is truly a gift to have so many new starts and congregations participating in Forward Leadership who are  intentionally moving toward redevelopment and renewal. I think of them as incubators for future faith community  as they experiment with new ways of being church together in the 21st century. 

In a way, we are all called to be mission developers setting out in the mission field; we are all called to be present, to show up, and to meet people where they are in Jesus name… with no assumptions,   no reservations,  and only one expectation: that God will be there with us and will see this journey to the end.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Madeleine's drawing of Emanuel AME Church
Source: Melanie and Madeleine

Moving Forward


Like many others I am shocked, angry, horrified, and deeply saddened by the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. As we begin to put all of the pieces together surrounding this violent attack, the systemic cancer of racism and hate embedded in our culture rises to the surface.

I grieve the loss of those nine saints and also the countless other lives that have been touched by violence, repression, and hatred because of the color of skin or ethnicity.

I grieve for the families, friends, and colleagues who will be forever changed by the senseless murder of loved ones.

I grieve for the congregation of Mother Emanuel who must now find a way forward without those beloved members of their community.

I grieve for the family of the assailant who are reeling with confusion, shock and heartbreak.

I grieve for the wider church, for even as we  strive to share Good News of God’s love in Christ Jesus  though our words and actions, we are human and fall short, and the news that so many of our impressionable young people are hearing is not good news at all; it is tainted with hatred, bias and vitriol.

I grieve that the central message of our faith- that in Christ all are welcome, all are loved, all are equal and all are justified in the eyes of God is not louder, deeper and wider than the other messages that we encounter on a daily basis. Instead we are barraged with messages driven by anxiety, suspicion and fear.

In an era when “radicalized” is a buzz-word often combined with extremism and hate, God calls the church to radical love. Perhaps it is only now in the wake of yet another tragedy that we are recognizing the enormity and urgency of God’s counter-cultural expression of reconciliation and love.

Indeed this is a wake-up call.

But even as the waves of grief continue to crash over our hearts, we see do see this radical love in action. Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, who even in the throes of the deepest pain and horror and unimaginable sadness, opened their doors for worship this Sunday. Their  response to this maelstrom of fear and hate was to provide sanctuary, hope, and God’s peace.

In the midst of this storm, God shows up bringing healing and comfort and grace; grace enacted by those family members who stood up at the bail hearing of the gunman and spoke of their pain and loss and also spoke of mercy. Rather than let sin have the last word; they spoke forgiveness. They resisted the urge to meet hate with hate and instead met hate with love and hope. Their words echoed through the court room:

“I forgive you… confess… repent…May God have mercy on your soul… God forgives you… I forgive you.”

Those powerful words were not just meant for one lone wolf attacker, but were meant for us all;  prophetic words that cannot be ignored. 

We as individuals and as a church must look outward and address issues of racial inequality in our culture and institutions and listen deeply to the experience of our brothers and sisters who face discrimination and injustice.

We must look inward and examine our own actions, our own bias, our own complicity through our silence, and engage our communities in honest dialogue about race.

We must look to the future and educate our children and grandchildren so that they will not only see the color of skin but will see the beautiful image of God in each and every person they encounter.

We must look to Jesus and take to heart God’s vision for the kingdom- a place where loving one another as Jesus loved us is not a lofty goal in the sky, but a way of life for the here and now.

As leaders we must look at the inauguration of a new day, an opportunity to explore new directions for ministry, and engage in new mission.

Let us follow Jesus and let us continue on the Way, and rebuke the fear, anger, anxiety, and hate and still this storm of injustice. Like those members of Mother Emanuel, let us act in faith and be the instruments of God’s mercy, peace, comfort, hope, and love in this age and in the age to come.

Wake up the Christ that is in you, and still this storm.

It is a time for us to move forward together-In Jesus name. Amen.

Resources:

ELCA:

New England Synod: 
"I Have Dream Fund"  (Grant Process)
Providing financial resources for those who long for an end to racism and an increase in understanding across cultural barriers, established by Margaret and John Payne.

Faith and Leadership at Duke University:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Forward Leadership Moves Into It's 2nd Year!

"Holy Experiment" Progress Report


What does it mean to be a congregation today when attending church is no longer a priority for much of society?  
How do we measure progress and growth? 
How do we adjust to a changing culture and context?  
What is real adaptive change and what is only a temporary technical fix? 
Where is God leading us, here, now, in this place? 
How will we guide our faith communities as we move forward?

Those are just some of the questions that the Forward Community asks together as we journey through the program year. In the quest to find answers to those questions, we look to recent research and scholarship, congregational self assessment, and prayerful reflection. But more importantly, we look to the shared experience of our faith communities; learning from one another, exchanging ideas, and developing relationships as we seek to know ourselves in the present and discern God’s call for the future. While no one is an expert, and each congregation’s direction will be unique, we are all bound by the  common cord of hope which drives us forward in ministry and mission.

Having just completed our pilot year with the 2014 Forward Leadership Community, we can’t say that we have all the answers, but we can say that we’ve seen some remarkable initiatives grow out of our time together. Rev. Sara Anderson and I would like to thank the Leadership and Accountability Teams from Christ the King, Holliston, MA, First Lutheran of Lynn, MA, First Lutheran of Southington, CT, First Evangelical Lutheran, Waltham, MA and Holy Trinity, N. Easton, MA for their dedication and support. It was a truly a blessing to see the enthusiasm, creative energy, and faith of each of these teams translate into active ministry and mission. Their suggestions and insight have helped us to make changes to the Forward timeline and curriculum for the 2015 program year. Although they have completed the one year commitment, they are still a part of the Forward Community and we will continue to offer opportunities for learning and fellowship in the coming year.

Forward Leadership Community Retreat January 2015
In January we embarked on our second year of Forward Leadership, welcoming nine new congregations to the learning community; Bethlehem of Sturbridge,  MA, Christ of West Boylston, MA,  Faith of Gardner, MA, First of  Ellington, CT, Good Shepherd of Monroe, CT, Grace of Needham, MA,  Immanuel of Holden, MA,  Redeemer of Woburn, MA, and St. Mark’s of Woonsocket, RI. The Leadership Teams have set goals based on their Church Assessment Tool responses and are in the process of implementing changes. We’re moving forward!

We’re also happy to announce that we have received funding to continue the Forward Leadership Community through 2016. Applications are available for download by clicking the 2016 Application Tab. Additional information about the program year and leadership resources are also available on the site, but if you really want to know more about the Forward Leadership just talk to one of the 14 congregations that are part of this community!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Difficult Conversations

Can we talk?

How different the world would be if we all simply talked things out before they became issues bigger than words or conversations?  How different would our relationships be if we honestly articulated our feelings when things or people or changes made us anxious, fearful or insecure?  How different would we all be if we could talk, really talk to one another in the spirit of love and truth? 

Instead, we put off difficult conversations and put on the mask of niceness; accommodating unreasonable demands and working around  inflexibility, and skirting the real problems.  Eventually those issues grow into conflict where anger, fear and anxiety supplant love, collegiality and the spirit of community, and ultimately your relationships decay.

So let's talk about difficult conversations.

Frankly, I don't like having them; I don't know anyone who does.  But when you are in a leadership position it’s a fact of life.  Especially if you are leading change.  There will be resistance, passive aggressive behavior, maybe even some overt animosity. You will need to have difficult conversations. For the sake of the health of your congregation you will have to initiate dialogue with those who may not want any dialogue with you. These may even be people who you love dearly but who are also threatening to impede God's mission by continuing to engage in unhealthy behaviors within the congregation.

Remember when Paul called out Peter when he heard that Peter had altered his choice of dining companions when the big-wigs from Jerusalem came calling?  I'm sure Paul never wanted to have that conversation with Peter, but for the sake of God's mission to the Gentiles he had to speak up.  No mixed messages, no hypocrisy.  Paul took Peter aside and laid it all out. Galatians 2:11-14 MSG

Difficult conversations are just that...difficult.  Not impossible, just difficult.

I’m sure that for Paul, having that conversation with Peter was awkward.  In the spirit love and truth, Paul had the courage to name the problem and address Peter directly before the situation got even more out-of-hand. Imagine if Paul had not spoken out!  What would have happened to this new vision of inclusivity, this Gospel that gathered Jew, Gentile, free, slave, male and female as members of one body in Christ?  In the text one has the sense that divisions were escalating rapidly and those bold steps into new community were on the verge of retreat. 

Change will always be countered by some sort of resistance, sometimes it’s obvious, like the person who crosses their arms and says no, and sometimes it’s  less overt and is more passive, like when someone agrees with the change then goes about doing things they way they have always done it.  Many times conversations are more difficult to have with the person in the second scenario. There may be a few different underlying factors guiding their behavior; fear of the unknown, anxiety about recent decisions and the change process, loss of sense of place in the community, uncertainty about the overall mission or vision, etc. It may even be a combination of things.  Individual(s) that are clearly hampering the changes and directions identified by the community that needed to engage in God’s mission cannot be ignored or accommodated, they need to be listened to and offered a chance to express their viewpoints in an atmosphere of honesty and mutual respect. Leaders who enter these conversations must do so with both humility and forbearance, bringing a non-anxious presence to the situation. They must have clarity of vision and mission and the ability to articulate the motivation for change in relation to that vision and mission.

Bringing the conversation back to God’s mission and vision for the congregation and re-directing comments about personal likes/dislikes will help to keep focus on what God is doing rather than on individual preferences.

In Antioch, Paul confronts Peter publicly in order that the others who have changed their behavior will also see the impact of their actions.  It was too late for a quiet private conversation since even Barnabas had begun to follow Peter’s lead. A difficult conversation with one person became a difficult conversation with many. Ideally, Paul could have headed this off at the pass, taking Peter aside before things escalated- that hesitation led to a “situation”.

So, leaders, through prayer and observation it’s up to you to discern when the time is right to initiate the conversation. Keep God’s mission and vision central. Invite Jesus to sit in at the meeting and trust that the Holy Spirit will guide you in love and truth. 

Take it from Paul, who sums up the the core of our difficult conversations so beautifully-
“Can’t you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do—submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life! All who walk by this standard are the true Israel of God—his chosen people. Peace and mercy on them!” 
(Galatians 6:14-16  MSG)


Here's a little refresher on the "Difficult Conversations" segment from the last Forward Leadership Seminar:

Difficult Conversations: Nine Common Mistakes


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Change or Die

Change or die!
Harsh reality or hope-filled commission? 
Last ditch effort or holy beginning?
Law or Gospel?

 “Change or die”, are daunting and challenging words for congregations and leaders.
Yet looking through the lens of  faith and our undying life and renewal in Jesus, we can see change not as an enemy but as a unexpected and tangible witness to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our congregations and communities today. The change in the world that God instigated in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection 2000 years ago continues to challenge the status quo and the dominant culture of the day. 
"Change or die", could be a rallying call for anyone or anything that must adapt to a changing climate, demographic, political regime or economy. 
"Change or die" is the spark of evolution, reformation and revolution. 
Not  words for the faint of heart.

Change OR die might be the challenge but change AND die is the reality.

If there is change, something will have to die.
There will be a death to the way things have always been done, death to systems that no longer function, death to  paradigms that were perfect in 1954 or 1974 but have lost meaning in 2014, death to mediocrity, death to going through the motions, death to denial,  death hopelessness, death to isolation, and death to… dying.  

With these “deaths” there will be grieving, anger, resistance, conflict and fear that will attempt to slow or counteract the change process.  As a people who live on the other side of the cross we know that beyond our pain and sin and anxiety God’s love has the power to transform, recreate, and reconcile everything and everyone.  Propelled and inspired by this Good News we are bold to put our faith into action; bringing change to our congregations and communities that we may participate more fully in God’s mission in our world today.  We move from what was, to what will be, guided by the promise that each step is a holy beginning and hope-filled commission.  We move forward in the knowledge that the change Jesus seeks in us and our neighbors will be blessed with forgiveness, love and God’s abiding presence. Gospel indeed!

At our last Forward Leadership Seminar, Bishop Hazelwood recommended, Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and at Life, by Alan Deutschman. The book is based on an article that originally appeared in Fast Company Magazine in 2005,  Fast Company, Change or Die. There is also an interview on Duke Divinity School's Faith and Leadership blog, Alan Deutschman: The benefits of change.  Great stuff!

Finally, words of  wisdom from "Kid President" on how you can change the world.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Stewardship: The Next Generation

One of our biggest challenges we have as congregations is creating ways for young adults and families to explore what stewardship is and looks like for the 21st century. The models we've been using to "do stewardship" are no longer relevant for this new generation of giver. They are not as content to simply write a number on the pledge card.  Rather, they need to feel emotionally, physically, and in the case of the church, spiritually connected to the cause, ministry or campaign.
They want impact they can see, and they want to know that their own involvement has contributed to that impact. They want to use any necessary strategies, assets, and tools – new or old – for greater impact.
 Once engaged, these next gen major donors want to go “all in.” Giving without significant, hands-on engagement feels to them like a hollow investment with little assurance of impact. They want to develop close relationships with the organizations or causes they support; they want to listen and offer their own professional or personal talents, all in order to solve problems together with those whom they support. They have grown up volunteering, and they still want to offer their time, but in more meaningful ways, not just holding a seat on a gala organizing committee.   "Key Findings", #NEXTGENDONORS, Johnson Center, 2014

We need to think about  stewardship as something beyond pledge cards, time and talent sheets and an annual campaign. Creating multiple opportunities for giving throughout the year and making spontaneous giving EASY are technical fixes. (Who carries around cash and check book all the time anymore?) But also consider how we involve this next generation as leaders. Think about crowd sourcing, social media, even take cues from the flash mob phenomena.  Collaboration and networking are key.  And, as I watch my kids grow, they have been  involved with more service and community projects through the school system, scouts and sports than I ever was.  And this is normal- they are used it. This generation is about "being there", not just collecting donations or fundraising, but connecting to community and building relationships. They're willing to get their hands and hearts into it.

An oft used phrase we hear every stewardship season is "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."   Maybe for this next generation we should ponder Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of that same verse, "The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being."


For more info on Gen X and Millenial giving check out http://www.nextgendonors.org/