10 Inner Thoughts while Preaching

I am not sure about you but when I preach there are two things that are happening at once.  I am concentrating the physical act of speaking in front of people and trying to make sense but then there is the inner dialogue that is happening too.  I usually have a conversation with myself in my own brain while I am preaching.

I know I am not alone…at least I pray I’m not.  I feel confident that I am not.  Moving on.

I decided to make list of the ten common thoughts that go on in my head while preaching…please feel free to add your own in the comments.

  1. I hope they are looking at the Bible on their phones.
  2. Did I pronounce that right…oh well, just go with it and move on.
  3. Where was I?
  4. Am I saying “um” too much?
  5. Is it hot/cold in here?
  6. ________ is sleeping again.
  7. Is anyone hearing what I am saying?
  8. ________ is giving me good energy and eye sight, THANK YOU!
  9. We are going to run over…where can I trim a little on the fly?
  10. Was that the Holy Spirit talking right there?

Godspeed John Oliver

John Oliver, on his show Last Week Tonight, does a wonderful job giving a long commentary on one topic.  This past week he chose Televangelists.  Below is the result of months of research and correspondence.  (warning, harsh language is used in this clip and may not be suitable for young children and animals).

I thought he did a brilliant job taking a deep look at the plague that is Prosperity Gospel Televangelists, (although I don’t agree with the language, especially when he says God says, “$&@ You.”)  What is remarkable is the governments lack of oversight…ok not too remarkable, more sad, very sad.  The loopholes in the laws make it extremely easy to give to these “churches.”

John Oliver has started his own church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.  Click on the site because it is hilarious but also has a point.  Here is their mission “When John Oliver found out that Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland and other pastors of their ilk have been taking advantage of the open-ended IRS definition of the word “church” and procuring a litany of tax breaks, he founded the Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption Church, a tax-exempt organization that you certainly can’t say is not a church.  From that day forward, he has been dedicated to collecting copious donations and all manner of divine blessings, but mainly the donations.”

I hope this tax experiment works because I truly despise what Prosperity Gospel Preachers do to harm the actual true work of God in this world.  They take advantage of the elderly, the poor, and the gullible all in the name of Jesus.  They pad their pockets and building huge amounts of wealth.  They are doing more damage then they are good in this world because people actually believe what they preach is gospel.  In reality it is heresy.

God bless you John and may your crazy notion that a TV show can be called a church shine a light on the these loopholes so they can be closed.

One final note, if you read the small print, any donations made to Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption will be used for good.  “Upon dissolution, any assets belong to the Church at that time will be distributed to Doctors Without Borders.”

Sacred Bundles and Cows

Don’t make today’s innovations into tomorrow’s sacred cows. — Jeanie Daniel Duck
The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change (New York: Crown Business, 2001), 263.*

My Pastor Parish Relations Committee and I recently went through a study together called Pastor and Parish.  It is an excellent study to help demonstrate what the PPRC is supposed to do and their purpose.  In this study it talks about something called the “Sacred Bundle.”  The “Sacred Bundle” is defined as “the congregational memories, taboos and traditions that define their church’s culture, but may not be readily apparent to a new pastor.” 
The Sacred Bundle is filled with the little things that make the congregation who they are.  Examples could be things like unwritten expectations like the Pastor always makes coffee for the Sunday School classes.  Or it could be that the offering plates were the only thing left after the church caught on fire in 1963.  Or the painting in the back of the church was the last one done by the matriarch before her passing.  It could be even emotional ties to events like July 4th BBQs or Christmas Eve 11:00pm worship services. 
The Sacred Bundle can be filled with glorious and meaningful things but it can also be filled with sacred cows.  The pastor and many times the congregations really don’t know what is in the Sacred Bundle until change starts to happen.  I think it takes at least two years to really start to understand what is in the Sacred Bundle, both the good and the bad.  A pastor almost needs two cycles of the Christian year, two Christmases and two Easters and everything after and in between, to fully understand the congregation.  For some congregations this process might take even longer.
It is only after truly understanding the Sacred Bundle that solid and lasting change can happen.  When you understand what is inside the bundle you can speak to the good parts and honor them and cherish them along with the congregation.  The bad sections, the sacred cows, you can speak to as well and start to discuss openly why they are there and if they need to be. 
However, one needs to be careful because as change occurs the Sacred Bundle changes as well.  Are you as the pastor setting things in that bundle that will build and nurture the congregation or are they simply sacred cows that will weigh them down in the future?  Do we remove congregational sacred cows and toss in our own?  Is the change we are offering the congregation fluid enough to go through its own change down the road?  Or do our egos as pastors get in the way because we see that specific change as our little baby or possession?

Jeanie Daniel Duck is right, “Don’t make today’s innovations into tomorrow’s sacred cows.”  Our job as pastors is to invoke, implement and invite change that will lighten, support, and build the Sacred Bundles within our congregation.  We cannot add more sacred cows.  True leadership through a time of transition and change is the willingness to admit if the change we desire has turned into a sacred cow and if so, are we willing to let it go?  We ask congregations to do it, but are we, as leaders, willing to do the same?

*a quote in Lovett H. Weems, Jr’s pdf called “50 Quotations to Help Lead Change in Your Church”

As Fast As the Last

The work of adaptive change requires an open heart to respect and appreciate the pains of change that you are asking people to sustain. – Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky
 (“Leading with an Open Heart,” Leader to Leader, Fall 2002, 33.)
I have attempted to step back now and then, as I move a congregation through revitalization, to make sure I am bringing people along.  My brain is wired to think far ahead but I know that is not the case for everyone.  I am usually thinking two years ahead and then working back from there to see what steps or direction we need to be heading as a church.  I can get so caught up in my steps and planning that I forget to tell people what is happening.
For United Methodist Pastors it can be hard to remember the pain we are putting people in as we create and move a congregation into change.  We may be moving into a better form of Church and keeping what are core values are (see previous post for more) but do we recognize the pain associate with that.  Do we respect it?  Do we honor it?  Do we ignore it?  Do we speak to it?
One of the greatest moves I have witnessed in my congregation was the willingness for our senior’s Sunday School to move classrooms.  In other congregations, I have witnessed a vise grip on classrooms and they have been seen as sacred space.  Our nursery needed to move.  It was tucked into the corner of the first floor of our Education building.  It was way in the back and hard to get to.  There would be no way a guest would be able to find it.  We also (with the addition of my two kids) had more children in the nursery at that time and the space was too small for the amount of kids we had.  When I approached the class about possibly moving to give more space for the nursery, they did so happily and with pride.
They moved to another room right off the Sanctuary, which is smaller and doesn’t provide limited noise buffering from anything happening in the sanctuary.  There have been some pains since that transition and I admit there are times when I don’t give it much thought.  But their class has grown and they are filling up that space now.  The question I have to continue to ask myself is how can I continue to serve and honor them as we change?  My worry is that they will feel we are pushing them again with more change.  They might feel left out, ignored, or cast aside.  Yet they are a core of who we are and they are doing vital ministry within our congregation.  I cannot ignore them nor the pains we are asking them to endure as a class.

Change is a lot like hiking with a group of people.  You can only go as fast as the last person.  As a church leader we have to continue to look backwards and see who is at the back of the pack.  How are they doing and how are they reacting to the journey we all are going on.  This doesn’t mean you stop moving forward but it does mean you are doing it together without leaving people behind. 

Change and a Better Me

People will change only if they believe that a new insight, a new idea, or a new form helps them become more of who they are.  Margaret J. Wheatley(Leadership and the New Science, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1999), 148.) 

This quote comes from Lovett H. Weems, Jr’s pdf called “50 Quotations to Help Lead Change in Your Church.  I am going to use some of these 50 quotes to spur some blog posts on leadership and change from my experiences in Revland.
Often time in the midst of change people fear that it will change who they are.  Change does this but not at a core level.  What makes us who we are at our core is essential to who we are and that is what we fear might change when something new happens. 
When I became a father I really wasn’t nervous about the change coming to our family.  My wife and I were excited about this “something new” coming into our lives.  I had no clue what was in store for me as a new father but I knew I was excited about it.  Now, having two children, I tell soon-to-be fathers and mothers that the best way to describe it is to put your life down on a piece of paper.  Take that piece of paper and get in your car.  Drive your car down the highway at 70mph.  Then open your window and throw your paper/life out the window.  Once a child enters your life, it is never the same.  Everything is different but you never want it to go back.
The act of change scares many people because they are worried it will effect everything.  The truth is though, while everything changed for me when I had a child and now children, I am still me.  I have different roles to play now.  Life is different but I am still me.  In fact I feel I am more me now then when I was single or newly married.  When the kids move away and it is just my wife and I again, things will change but I will still be me. 
As a congregation moves through change one of the biggest things that clergy should pay attention to is what makes that church…that church.  What is its core values.  What draws people in and connects them to God.  When you define those core values then you can freely do different things, reminding people along the way the core values never change it just may be done differently.
Too often this gets left out of the conversation or pushed to the back burner.  Instead we should concentrate on those values, preach them, celebrate them, honor them and then remind them, preach them, celebrate them, honor them as change happens.  This will allow the church as a whole to take the journey together and not feel like they will lose themselves along the way.  Then they will be excited about the new thing because it will help them become more of who they are.

Power of Listening

We have forgotten James 1:19; “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to grow angry.” (CEB)

The stance of the United Methodist Church on homosexuality has been a hot topic for a very long time…ok that is probably a huge understatement.  As discussion of General Conference in 2016 start to ramp up and all the talk about schism, I have noticed, for a long time now, how horrible the internet has gotten.  We, as Christians, as United Methodists, as human beings, have forgotten how to listen to one another.

As a member of some Facebook United Methodist Groups, as I read posts, my heart aches because of the inability of my brothers and sisters in Christ to actually listen, to “be quick to listen.”  I find comment treads get derailed so easily that no real discussion happens.  It is only yelling with the hope that the opinion being shouted out sticks.

I completely understand how touchy and heated this discussion over homosexuality and the church’s stance is.  As I have wrestled with this issue and explored the scriptural basis on each side, I have realized there is really no discussion happening anymore.  There is no conversation, online at least.  Have we arrived at the place that we have moved beyond that now?  Are we at the place that now where people are only digging in their heels and trying to shout over each other?  Have we moved beyond discussion and holy conversation?

Proverbs 21:23 says, “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues guard themselves from trouble.”  Listening is learning to actually keep your mouth closed in order to let the other person talk.  Instead, many of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ have forgotten this and rely on being internet trolls instead.

If each side of the table has it all figured out…there is no conversation anymore.  If we have all the answers then who needs to listen to the other side.  There is no dialogue when we yell at how ‘unbiblical’ a person is for their interpretation of scripture.  There is no conversation when people are called ignorant, simple, closed minded, or heretics.

The joy I find in the United Methodist Church is that we don’t subscribe to one train of thought.  We have permission to disagree on things and still call each other United Methodist.  We can lean conservative or liberal (whatever the hell those unBiblical terms mean) and still join together to bring about the Kingdom of God.  Our connection is not based on agreement of social issues but instead is based on the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Maybe that is it.  In our haste to loosen our mouths and let our tongues flap without worry, we have convinced ourselves that we have all the answers.  We yell, “See it my way!” and will attempt to scream until every person follows suit.  We have forgotten the power of listening, hearing the other side, and understanding one another.

We have forgotten that we are to be like Nicodemus.  Even though he was trying to wrap his head around what Jesus was saying but couldn’t comprehend it, he eventually just shut up and listened to Jesus.  He stopped wondering “how” it was all to be and instead attempted to soak it all in.  My hope is that we will learn to be better listeners.  Through listening we will convey love and grace to our fellow brothers and sisters.  Through listening to Jesus we will gain understanding in what love and grace truly looks like.

7 Things to Do to Improve Your Old Church

At my appointment, Indian Trail UMC, we just celebrated 112 years of ministry this past week.  We are an old church, meaning years of existence.  We have old buildings.  The church buildings were built in the 1940-1950s.  There is a certain style, feeling and smell that comes with such buildings.  We hosted a Girl Scout Recruitment night last week and as parents and kids filled through I over heard one of the say, “This smells just like my grandmother’s house.”

There are some things we cannot change but we are attempting to do some things to revitalize our congregation.  Here are 7 things that we have done to improve our old church and make it more inviting.  They are simply and fairly cheap, but can deeply change the look and feel of an old building.  These small changes express something that a friendly congregation cannot.  They tell a visitor something beyond a warm handshake on Sunday morning.  It says, we care about our church and new life is happening here.

The other thing is to remember is that you don’t want these areas to be stuck in people’s head.  You want them leave feeling they connected with God and other people.  You don’t want them sharing horror stories of things they saw when while they were there.  Here are 7 easy suggestions to take those eye sores away from your next church guest’s experience.

1. Paint 
The walls of the church may have a layer of dust on them, but that doesn’t mean with a good wash and paint job they can look fresh.  I am not talking about the sanctuary because that means Jesus would have to come back.  I am talking about hallways, Sunday School rooms, offices, entrances, and BATHROOMS!  A simple paint job can take the look of a hallway from drab to inviting. We recently painted our hallways, which were white, to a nice grey.  It gives the first thing people see coming into our offices/education building a warm and reassuring feeling.

2. Update fixtures 
The bathroom of one church I was an intern at had taps on the bathroom sink that were older than my grandmother.  They were rusted and hard to use.  Another church had door handles from the 60s that were hanging on by one thread of a screw.  You had to push it in, twist and pull back out to get it to open.  $20 can take a small item like door handles and bathroom fixtures and make them useable.  A guest may never even realize they were just put in but that is the point.  You don’t want them going home complaining about not being able to get the water to work and forgetting everything else they experienced.

3. Flowers/Landscaping
Planting seasonal flowers can bring new life to the outside of a church.  Finding a green thumb in the congregation who can plant and let seasonal annuals grow makes the outside of the church look much more inviting.  Cut back shrubs or remove old ones.  I had a church who’s shrubs out front had roots the size of trees.  They were original with the building.  When they were trimmed all you saw was the thick stems and it wasn’t appealing.  Freshly trimmed shrubs, new flowers, bulbs coming up, and new landscaping timbers can radically change how your church looks from the street.

4. Throw it out
There are always pockets within a church that is the dumping ground for donations from the past. I recently found a 1970s carpet cleaner with a yellowing duck taped handle hiding in the walls of my church.  It looked like someone had it, wanted to get rid of it and donated it to the church (because that is place for all the junk you don’t want in your house).  I was at another church that had a room for old medical equipment.  It was a good idea so that if someone was in need of crutches then the church could help out.  However it wasn’t cleaned out for decades.  I am pretty sure there was a wheelchair that FDR used up there.  THORW IT OUT!  If it hasn’t been used in 2 years it is no longer needed.  Yes, that lamb’s costume was precious when little Johnny wore it for the Christmas pageant but he is married with two kids of his own.  Only 20% of the cotton balls stay on…THROW IT OUT!

5. Deep Clean
Once in a while, maybe every spring before Easter or every Fall, get together and clean the church top to bottom.  Or hire someone to do it.  There are cobwebs in light fixtures and corners that should be cleaned up.  Wash those light fixtures while you are at it so they look clean and I bet the light will work better too.  Also, look for dead bugs.  Vacuum window sills and behind Sunday School furniture to get those pesky and nasty things up off the floor.

6. Air Filters
Change the church’s HVAC air filters as much as you do at your house.  I pulled one air filter out that looked like a cat had laid there for 14 years.  This improves the air quality and SMELL of the church.  No one likes smelling like an old musty building when they get home and changing the air filters is one easy fix to battle that stigma.

7. Take a Stranger Walkthrough 
Invite a friend who has never been to your church to come by and do a thorough walkthrough.  This stranger to your building will see things that you never see because you see them all the time.  Have them walkthrough with a camera and take a picture of everything that looks out of place, junky, spots on carpet or walls, dead bugs hiding spots or stained carpet.  Walking into familiar places blinds you to what you are actually walking into.  A stranger to that building will see things you never even noticed and give you a new perspective on what your old church looks like to those who are walking in for the first time.

Hello this is church…

I just hung up the phone with the second telemarketer of the day…I’ve been in the office for two and a half hours now.  9 times out of 10 this is why the church office phone rings.  Someone has something that will make my congregation grow deeper in their relationship with God.   My youth group can now understand how to connect with God more fully.  My staff’s cell phone plan can lower it’s cost if I switch.

When I was dreaming about ministry sitting behind a desk in seminary (yes, seminary students do that), I never realized how much business is crammed into ministry.  You have to squint a little, tilt your head to the left and push that right eyelid closed almost and stare at it, but if you look close you can see business all over ministry.  It shows up in all dollar signs.  As I hung up the phone with a person wanting to sell the newest Youth Ministry Product by informing him we don’t have a “youth pastor”, I wondered if it was always like this?

In the 1950s did church’s get phone calls from companies offering the newest Bible Study?  Were they getting offers to bring the best new speaker to their church for a revival?  It probably wasn’t exactly the same, but I am sure it was there.  Today it is all up in your face and I have learned to sound bored and unapproachable as I answer the phone.

The truth is ever since people have been worshiping, there is someone out there trying to make money off of it.  The motives haven’t changed only the avenues they travel on.  I guess it is just something they don’t tell you about in seminary.

14 (or 15) Points that make a Church…according to the IRS

I was listening to a radio news report on the definition of what a church is according to the IRS.  In a segment by John Burnett he discusses the idea that the TV Network, Daystar, is considered a church by IRS standards.  Here is a link to the show.  I had never had to deal with making sure the congregations I have been a pastor of were considered a church by the IRS.  I was interested to learn what these 14/15 points were that made the IRS consider an entity a church.  Here is what I found..

In applying the analysis to determine whether a religious organization may
properly be characterized as a church, the Service considers whether the
organization has the following characteristics: (a) a distinct legal existence, (b) a
recognized creed and form of worship, (c) a definite and distinct ecclesiastical
government, (d) a formal code of doctrine and discipline, (e) a distinct religious
history, (f) a membership not associated with any other church or denomination,
(g) an organization of ordained ministers, (h) ordained ministers selected after
completing prescribed studies, (i) a literature of its own, (j) established places of
worship, (k) regular congregations, (l) regular religious services, (m) Sunday
schools for religious instruction of the young, (n) schools for the preparation of its
ministers, and (o) any other facts and circumstances that may bear upon the
organization’s claim for church status. See IRM 7(10)69, Exempt Organizations
Examination Guidelines Handbook, text 321.3(3).

These terms seem so broad I was wondering if anything could become a tax exempt church?  What about a coffee house?  Could a prison?  Could a fast food restaurant become a church if they changed a few names of people?

I guess what disturbed, but not surprised, me about this piece was the Television Network’s claim that since they produce worship services as TV shows that it counts as worship.  There is no formal service outside the ones shown on TV.  Now I confess I have not seen any of these shows.  I did visit the website and it looks like any other TV network website.  You can see clips from their shows but there is no scheduled worship time or location.

I am not worried that my church is not a church.  By this list we fulfill the necessary requirements.  It is a shame though that there are those people out there that are taking advantage of the system and making millions upon millions of dollars off of a loophole that the IRS is too busy to fill.

It is a great piece by John, take time to listen.

Revelation on Elevation

Another news story was launched on Elevation Church and this time it is about Spontaneous Baptisms. The NBC affiliate in Charlotte, WCNC, has been doing some investigating reports on the church. Some say it is a witch hunt while others point to the history of PTL as valid reasons why this reporting is important.  One of the main campuses of the church is only a few miles from my church.  I have friends who attend the church and I am finding that these stories are talked about in almost all of my social circles, personal and professional.  Recently there was a blog post that came out showing a coloring page given to children and it has added additional fuel to the fire. 
Some of my Facebook friends have asked my opinion on the matter and I told them I would respond. Now that I have drawn a line in the sand I feel I need to say something but I have been wrestling with how and what to actually say.  
I wrote one draft of a post but then after reading another clergy’s thoughts on what is happening I realized what I need to say.  So here it goes…
I am an Ordained Elder of the United Methodist Church and have grown up in the UMC all my life.  I love our theology, structure and holding down the extreme center socially and theologically.  I went to a Presbyterian college and received reformed theological training and theology but I became more United Methodist the longer I was there.  I am not Southern Baptist and have never been.  I have only attended a few Southern Baptist churches and have limited experience with SB pastors.  Although, my daughter does go to a Southern Baptist Preschool and I have family who are Baptist.
I say this because the Southern Baptist theology and polity are not things I am all too familiar with.  I know a little but not enough to make myself an expert.  I know we don’t agree theologically on many things.  I know I have had some recovering baptists in my congregations over the years and I know others who are recovering methodists in baptist congregations.  
I celebrate our differences because we all look at the world differently.  We need different theologies so that we can speak to as many people as possible and work together to bring forth the Kingdom of God.  We can agree to disagree on our views of baptism, church structure and other points of theology.  It is okay!
Elevation Church is a Southern Baptist Church although you will not find that anywhere on their site or campuses.  I know that Pastor Steven is doing some wonderful things over there.  How could he not to be only 34 and have a congregation in two cities and growing it to over 14,000 people?  I hear the music is incredible and the production put into each worship service is amazing, although I have not ever been to a worship service there.  
When some of the other news reports came out I asked some of my Elevation friends their thoughts.  I did this because how Elevation is run and organized is vastly different than my denomination and experience.  I was curious what others thought, not in a judgmental way but in a “I want to learn more about this” way.  
With all this said, here is my $.02 on Elevation Church.  It is different than my church in almost every way.  It is structured differently than my denomination and the church I pastor.  We hold different views when it comes to baptism and visioning.  I have listened to some of Pastor Steven’s sermons via podcast and there are some places where we agree theologically and others where we disagree, although I can find that in about every minister, even within my own tradition.  Elevation ≠ Indian Trail United Methodist.  Good?  Bad?  I am not to judge, all I know is we are different.
Would I hold a Spontaneous Baptism service…no because we have a different theology on baptism.  Do I agree with the planting of 15 people to get up when Pastor Steven asks people to come get baptized?   To me that walks right up to that line we shouldn’t cross in worship and resembles a little bit of Jonas Nightingale to me.  But once again that is because we see things differently.  I think the news report was a little unfair and reaching when it talks about “mining for good stories.”  I think all pastors and churches are looking for good stories to help share people’s experience at their church.  I don’t see anything unBiblical about that, but since the church published guidelines with those directions in it, it does make them a easy target.
I finally realized where I should look to form my opinion of Elevation Church…scripture.  As it says in Acts 5:38-39, “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” I will not judge nor try to fight against God. I will acknowledge our differences but we worship the same God and believe in the work and salvation found in Jesus Christ.  That is my opinion on Elevation…if is of human origin, it will fail and if it is of God, it will thrive.

I will pray for their church, as I hope they would lift mine up as well, and I will continue to do my part to build up the Kingdom of God in the community we share.