Stir it Up - Going Forward as a Synod of Experimentation

Readers of this blog, and people active in the New England Synod, may already be aware of my emphasis on experimentation.  Last fall, I began writing a paper that reflected on 'where we are and where are we going.'  It's now had multiple versions, and the latest one is now published at this link.  Click here.

The paper is my attempt to speak into the challenging circumstances that confront mainline, particularly Lutherans, congregations in New England.  It's an evolving document, and the latest version includes some significant additions.  In this version 12, I wanted to respond to frequent requests for examples.  Essentially, I was hearing, 'look, we go it, we know the problem, show us some solutions.'  OK.  There are some, and we can add more.  Hopefully, the examples will generate some energy and inspiration.  But, remember, "inspiration is good, but inspiration plus action is better."

This is the version that will be available for conversation at our New England Synod Assembly.

 

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The Wave of Retiring Clergy is upon us

The chart below depicts the wave that we have seen coming for a while.  It's now here.  If you work in almost any field, you know this graph.  As the Baby Boom generation (born 1946-1961) moves into their retirement years, we in the church are asking, what next?  In New England, we've got three projects going:

1.  A New England Synod Fund for Leaders designed to raise money to send the next generation of people through seminary.  Like to make a donation?

2. We've started a Licensed Lay Ministry program for our smaller rural and urban congregations.

3.  Fortunately, many of those retiring pastors still want to serve, but usually part time.  This is a good thing.

 

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What's an Evangelical?

This word might be among the most confusing for people.  In recent years, the phrase evangelical christian, has come to be associated with a more conservative branch of christianity.  But, it's a range.  On one hand you have someone like Tony Campolo and Shaine Claibourne who speak openly of their Christian faith and espouse care for the poor, economic justice and racial reconciliation.  But, also in the evangelical christian camp is Jerry Falwell, Jr who espouses gun ownership and anti-abortion anti-choice positions.

Then you have the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is really a mainline denomination, rooted in a European understanding of the word evangelical.  In Germany the name of the Lutheran church is the evangelical church or Evangelical Kirche.  The idea is that it is the church of the Good News.  Around the world, many Lutheran denominations or churches are called the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, as one example.

All this can be very confusing for the average US American driving down the road when they see a sign for Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church.  What does that mean?  It depends on what that driver has recently heard, experienced or seen on TV.  Most of our (ELCA) congregations in New England do not resemble anything like the evangelical congregations that are often baptist, covenant or independent.  Should we shed the E word?  If it's a barrier to connecting with people, then yes.  It may be time to be Our Savior Lutheran Church, and let the evangelical, meaning good news, be something you live out in the actions of your congregation.

Is it Economics, Financial Freedom, or Christian Stewardship?

The answer is Yes!

Heck, it's life stewardship.  The only thing that makes it Christian is my lame attempt to follow Jesus, dance with the Trinity and enjoy God's ever Evolving Creation.

Today, the CBO, (Congressional Budget Office  -these are the men and women who actually count real numbers in our economy, unlike what each political party wants the numbers to be)  Anyway, they released news today, that the federal debt is expected to soar to more than $33 trillion in 2028.  Yes, indeed, that is a big number.  There was a day when Republicans, Independents and Democrats would have screamed at such a number.  Now, I guess it's only a few people, like me that look at that and shudder.  Or is it shutter?

What's a fiscal conservative socially liberal bishop to do?

To start with, I'm doing everything I can to pay off all my own debts, including the mortgage.  Then I'm going to save every stinking' penny I can.  Why?  Cause, it don't look pretty in 10 years.  You might want to consider the same thing, cause there ain't free lunch, and you can't spend your way out of this mess.

 

The Post Easter Reading Work Week

I'm laying low for the week after Easter.  Why?  Cause I pretty much worked everyday during the month of March.  In addition, I drive 4372 miles.  1500 of those was a 2 & 1/2 day straight shot from Minneapolis to Rhode Island cause I was transporting my father in laws car.  He doesn't need it anymore, since moving to assisted living at the spry age of 94.  I realized that 4372 miles translates into three 24 hour days behind the wheel.  OK. I'm done. 

So this week, I'm home.  A couple of projects like priming and painting our basement, which has been left undone for, too long.  A major cleaning of my home office.  Oh, and then there is Taxes.

It's also a reading week.  Here's what I'm diving into:

Heart & Mind by Alexander John Shaia.  It's a look at the Four Gospel's through the perspective of  inner transformation, using the tools of ancient wisdom, modern therapy and a flair for re-sacralizing the texts.  Loving it.

Sapiens : a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari - Haven't started this one yet, but it looks to be an evolutionary view of how we made it to this point in history.  We being peoples.

Poor Richard's Retirement  by Aaron Clancy.  Basically, it's a mother twist on the Minimalism path that I've written about previously in this blog.  This is one of those in-your-face testosterone heavy smacked down books.  On the one hand, I really can't recommend it.  On the other hand, it made me realize that what makes life worth living is people and purpose.  The end conclusion is that retirement is not something one should do.

The Essential Rumi - Coleman Barks, translator - When I went to hear Rob Bell last week, he mentioned in a throwaway line, his love of Rumi.  I pulled my copy off the shelf and dusted it off. Wow.  This is poetry that sings the Body Electric, and will remind you that God's Creation is something we are all invited to dance and sing with the Divine.

Even the Stiffest People Can do the Splits - Eiko.  Yup, won't this be fun.  How'd you like to see a 6'7" Bishop do the splits on stage at Assembly.  OK, maybe not, but this combined with Yoga for Cyclists is destined to get me limbered up.  I just need to do the exercises, not just read about them. 

Managed vs Solved

There are things that can be solved, and there are matters that need to be managed.  You can rarely do both, and the real challenge is to figure out which is which.

For instance, our recent Synod Council meeting discussed updates to the Compensation Guidelines for Pastors and Deacons in our synod.  We spent more time than originally planned, and even had to add additional time to our Saturday morning agenda to address the topic.  The challenges are many, and the discussion centered around how to do this work well.  The overall sense in the room was one of people wanting to do the right thing, while mindful of the many challenges.

During a break as a few of us talked over coffee, I realized that this was not a problem that could be easily solved.  However, it was and is a topic that can be managed.  The Synod Council can't solve the problem of clergy student loan indebtedness, nor can it solve the income/offering struggles of our congregations.  What it could do was hold the tension and try to best manage the conversation, and approve a document that creates room for guidance and healthy conversation about compensation.

Another example, for me was my time serving a congregation in Brooklyn, NY.  The altar guild was consistently frustrated by a lack of participation by other members of the congregation.  I tried to solve the problem by recruiting new people, but when those new people offered to help, they were rebuked.  The altar guild kept saying the new people would work because.... the reasons varied from legitimate to the absurd.  I finally realized that the altar guild was not a problem I could solve, rather it was a situation that I had to manage.  So I shifted to a positing of offering options for the altar guild, such as inviting them to make announcements, come to new member classes to speak to new people or write newsletter articles.  They declined all of those opportunities, and continued to express frustration.  The difference was my ability to step back from the chaos and confusion.

Some things can be managed, some things can be solved.  This is true of most of life.  the challenge is getting them in the right alignment.

New Podcast Episodes Coming

If you go over to the Podcast page, you'll see that I have been engaged in numerous conversations.  I've got several episodes coming out this month, including a conversation with Diana Butler Bass, Pastor Carrie Smith and some folks who started a Coffee Shop as a ministry in Manchester, CT.  A new episode releases every week, and if you haven't you can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or Spotify.

Lent - The Times Test Us

I've never been one to believe that God tests people.  You know the idea that there is a divine being up in the sky looking down, making decisions about who should struggle and who should be spared.  That has never worked for me.  However, it's clear to me that the times we are living in

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test us.  The experience of life, the pains we inflict on others, and are inflicted on us.  Those are in deed testing, and at times make us testy.  Amen?

What to do?

Many of us have been taught by our families that and culture that we must pass some kind of test in order to become worthy to receive the gift of grace, namely that love is something to be earned.  But, I believe that God reverses this pattern.  The gift of love and acceptance requires nothing more than opening our hearts to an ever present invitation.   God call us through a bleak landscape, testing times, so that we may get to a place where love will mature in and around us.  Perhaps each crisis that we face is a fresh invitation.  An invitation to enter more deeply into a relationship with God, as the life journey that yields further resolve.

I have a friend I call when the tests become so  dominant that I become quite testy.  He recently said to me, "Jim, every time I face a challenging situation, I try to ask myself a question.  How is it that God wants me to grow from this experience?"  I sit back and ponder that, and it gives me some fresh resolve, insight and hopefully, maturity.

 

In the Face of Violence

STATEMENT IN SOLIDARITY WITH OUR CHILDREN AND YOUTH

Our children and youth are like a young Jeremiah prophesying to the people: For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jer. 29:11) 

Recently, the students, faculty and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida experienced tragedy. Seventeen people - students and teachers - were killed by a 19-year-old shooter. In response, students have invited their teachers, families and allies around the nation to join with them for a March for Our Lives on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC; calling our country into a deeper conversation about school safety and second amendment rights and responsibilities. 

We recognize this incident is the latest in a long list of tragic shootings in our country and young people have been calling for protest and change for many years. Some of those young voices have been ignored or silenced because of racial and economic injustice. We cannot let that reality keep us from acting now.  

Adopted in 1994, the ELCA social message on Community Violence remains sadly relevant today. The message speaks about the causes of violence as complex and pervasive, and of how violence breeds violence. In proclaiming the forgiveness and love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church addresses the root of violence while being committed to social actions that respond directly to violence and the people it affects.  

From the Social Message: In the face of violence, God’s resolve for peace in human communities is unshakable. Deliberate acts to harm or kill innocent people violate God’s intention for human community. God’s commandment is “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). In proclaiming God’s law, we declare that all people are accountable before God and the community to honor and respect the life God has given. Christians, as salt of the earth (Mt. 5:13) and light of the world (Mt. 5:14), are called to respond to violent crime in the restorative ways taught by Jesus (Mt. 5:38-39) and shown by his actions (Jn. 8:3-11). We are empowered to take up the challenge to prevent violence and to attack the complex causes that make violence so pervasive. 

According to Lutheran theology, society is to be ruled by the civil use of the Law. Government is responsible under God for the protection of its citizens and the maintenance of justice and public order. As citizens in a democracy, we have the responsibility to join with others to hold government accountable for protecting society and ensuring justice for all, and to seek changes in policies and practices toward these ends. 

That social message was amplified by a social statement, For Peace in God’s World (1995) which, as part of its adoption, offered concrete implementation actions, including: To call upon the members and leaders of this church to support our youth in their struggle to define their identity and vocation as present and future peacemakers… 

The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in solidarity with our children and youth, and in response to our common baptismal vocation: living among God’s faithful people, hearing the word of God and sharing in the Lord’s Supper, proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, serving all people following the example of Jesus, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth; offer our support, partnership and prayers for the March for Our Lives, its satellite city events, and our children and youth who are leading us forward as peacemakers. 

The undersigned members have given their names in public and personal support of the statement.

My Signature,  among many appears here.  Bishop James Hazelwood

Another School Shooting - Lament in this season of Lent

It is clear we worship a culture of violence, the hand of greed and the power of dominance. The new trinity. I read all those psalms and wisdom literature of lament and outrage with fresh eyes, once again.

"Well, I took all this in and thought it through, inside and out. Here’s what I understood: The good, the wise, and all that they do are in God’s hands—but, day by day, whether it’s love or hate they’re dealing with, they don’t know. Anything’s possible. It’s one fate for everybody—righteous and wicked, good people, bad people, the nice and the nasty, worshipers and non-worshipers, committed and uncommitted. I find this outrageous—the worst thing about living on this earth—that everyone’s lumped together in one fate. Is it any wonder that so many people are obsessed with evil? Is it any wonder that people go crazy right and left? Life leads to death. That’s it." Ecclesiastes 9

"But it’s a black day for me! Hopelessly wounded, I said, “Why, oh why did I think I could bear it?” My house is ruined— the roof caved in. Our children are gone— we’ll never see them again. No one left to help in rebuilding, no one to make a new start!" Jeremiah 10

"I’m homesick—longing for your salvation; I’m waiting for your word of hope. My eyes grow heavy watching for some sign of your promise; how long must I wait for your comfort?" Psalm 119

(A)Moral Man and Immoral Society: Why We Need Reinhold

Most people know the Serenity Prayer.  Do you know the author?  

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Some of you might recognize the the name Reinhold Neibuhr.  You'll also note the play on words in the title of this blog post.  The play on the well known book title by Reinhold Neibuhr, which was called Moral Man and Immoral Society.  Neibuhr was a theologian, political commentator and professor of Church & Society at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  He was one of the most influential voices of the 1940's & 50's.  If you want an orientation to Neibuhr, check out the documentary American Conscience here.   The trailer is below.

Why bring up Neibuhr today?  Candidly, I'm struggling with something  I am observing in our culture.  In the words of a friend of mine  "I am constantly doing battle with justice militants who think that the way to perfect the Church is to endlessly proliferate episcopal mandates for righteous living." and then later..."On the right it is the delusion of personal righteousness...on the left it is the absurdity of social utopia.  I find both to be equally naive and equally pernicious."

I am not such a skilled writer.  Heck, I barely passed Mrs. McKinley's eighth grade english class with a C minus.  But, today I'm resonating with these words.  You want my translation?  "People on both sides of the cultural/political/church world have no interest in living in reality, they just want to have their say, damn the torpedoes whether it helps us have a better world."

So this is why I think of Reinhold today,  He was a Christian realist, and he understood power and the corruptive nature of power on society.  Because society is corrupt, it's not possible for human beings to be moral, largely because individuals are forced to compromise the ideal of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Niebuhr argued that human perfectibility was an illusion, highlighting the sinfulness of humanity at a time when the world was confronted by the horrors of the Holocaust, Hitler, Stalin etc.

In the New York Times obituary upon his death in 1971, the author Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote, "[Niebuhr's] emphasis on sin startled my generation, brought up on optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility. But nothing had prepared us for Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, concentration camps and gulags. Human nature was evidently as capable of depravity as of virtue... Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power."

Now, at this point let's bring in Martin Luther.    "Simul Justus et pecator" which means "We are simultaneously saint and sinner."  We need Luther to be in conversation with Neibuhr.  Oh, wow, would that be a Table Talk at the local pub. I'd love to be in on that conversation.  Luther reminds us that we need to let go of the delusion of personal righteousness...and the absurdity of social utopia. It ain't gonna happen.  Our redemption in Christ is central.  Our humanity as saint/sinner describes our condition.

Why is this important?  Because as long as both the left and the right cling to these fantasies, and the idea that they can be legislated, mandated or persuasively generated...we are toast.  How's that for elegance?  Human beings are wonderfully beautiful, broken, majestic, selfish, generous, god-forsaken (note the small g), grace imbued creatures.  When we recognize that, believe it, and swim in that water, well, it changes our expectations and our dreams.  

I would also argue it puts us on a more sober path toward addressing the critical crisis of our time which include all of the causes you want me to insert right here, but fall under a larger umbrella for both individuals and society to take responsibility for their own spiritual, social and emotional maturity.

How do we do that?  I have no clue, except maybe a hint:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

 

*Thanks to my friend WM for influencing this post.

Parenting a Transgender Child Part 2

Today we release part two of our conversation with Heidi Richards.  In episode one, we learned about how she began to learn her child identified as a boy and the impact that had on things like attending school, making friends and interacting with family.  In this episode we hear the next part of the story, as she is connected with resources at the GEM clinic in Boston, and her growing understanding of God in the midst of all of this adventure.

 You can subscribe to this podcast on  Apple Podcast or iTunes

You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcast or iTunes

Parenting a Transgender Child

Today, we release Episode 5 of our Podcast interview with Heidi Richards.  She is the parent of two children, one of whom identifies as transgender.  In part one of this two part interview, we discuss the early years of how she navigated some new territory for her and her child.  Heidi is a courageous, smart and loving mother.  I was so impressed with her candor and willingness to sit down with me and answer questions, that many people might have on this particular subject.

You can listen here or by subscribing to the podcast via Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

I'll release part 2 later this week. (After I finish the editing process)

The Podcast Launches....Now

We launch our podcast today.  You can listen to the Podcast here (see below -click the play button in the bottom left) or you can subscribe via Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.  There is also a Podcast Page on this Website, and we will have all the episodes there as well.

Today we release four episodes.  Part One is an Introduction which we refer to as Episode Zero, followed in the same podcast episode with a reading of the latest version of my article on a Church Being Re-Born.  Episode Two is an interview with Tim Stein about his new venture called Verse 4, in which we explore the struggles of churches at the close of their time of ministry.  Episode three and four is a two part conversation with Rev. Laura Everett about what she is seeing in dynamic churches in New England.  Enjoy.

More to come in the weeks and months ahead.  If you listen to Podcasts regularly consider subscribing in Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or your favorite Podcast App.

Christmas

What to do for Christmas gifts this year?  My wife and I have talked about giving each other one of the genealogy tests.  You know the ones they advertise on TV.  You swab a little flesh off the inside of your mouth, mail it off, and two weeks later they send you a report of your DNA.  Supposedly it reveals a pattern of your own ancestry.

   
  
   
  
    
  
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     Nativity , He Qi, ink and gouache on rice paper.  

Nativity, He Qi, ink and gouache on rice paper.  

Human being are meaning seeking creatures, and one of the ways we seek meaning is by looking backwards.  We look to our past to understand our present, which gives us glimpses of where we might be headed.  Perhaps that is part of the reason that Matthew was so keen to include that genealogy of Jesus.  Not exactly the most riveting way to start the greatest story ever told.

The family tree of Jesus Christ, David’s son, Abraham’s son:

 Abraham had Isaac,
Isaac had Jacob,
Jacob had Judah and his brothers,
Judah had Perez and Zerah (the mother was Tamar),
Perez had Hezron,
Hezron had Aram,
Aram had Amminadab,
Amminadab had Nahshon,
Nahshon had Salmon,
Salmon had Boaz (his mother was Rahab),
Boaz had Obed (Ruth was the mother),
Obed had Jesse,
Jesse had David,
    and David became king.                                                                                                
 David had Solomon (Uriah’s wife was the mother),
Solomon had Rehoboam,                             Matthew 1:1-11a (The Message)

The story of Jesus birth has a deeply profound message.  Namely, that God shows up in the darkest moments, God shows up in the times when you think God isn’t there, God shows up in the people you think “no way.”  So, what’s the deal with all this ancestry work here?

The Christmas story is not just about pedigree, or is it?  Look at some of those characters in the genealogy.  I’ll pick a few of the less well known.  Notice the reference to Tamar and Judah.  You can read about it in Genesis chapter 38.  What you’ll discover is not exactly the most noble of behavior.  Then there is Ruth, a foreigner, yes an immigrant.  She is someone not from one of the tribes of Israel.  Hmmmm, what does that tell us?  Then there is David and Solomon, and you may recall their story.  The mixture of exemplary leadership, and self absorbed narcissism.   

If a genealogy tells you about yourself, what does this genealogy tell us about Jesus Christ, the divine embodiment in human form?  What does it tell us about the nature of God?  Among other things, it suggests God is not particularly focused on purity.  God is more interested in showing up in the ordinary and the unexpected.  God shows up in immigrants.  God shows up in people whom we might deem less than noble. 

The story of Christmas has historically been presented too simplistically. In recent times, the commonly held narrative was this:  “Humanity has a problem that needs to be solved, so lets send Jesus to redeem it.”  Instead, I’m wondering if the story of Christmas is more about a reality needing to be expressed:  “Humanity is complex, often bewildered, wandering without purpose or connection, let’s enter into life to remind them that God is in their midst.”

Once again the message seems to be: “God shows up in the darkest moments, God shows up in the times when you think God isn’t there, God shows up in the people you think ‘no way.’”

When our DNA results arrive in the mail I wonder what it will reveal of our past.    We might be surprised.  I’m guessing we will also realize how God shows up in our past and the present.  Maybe we’ll get a glimpse of how God is pointing us into the future, as well.  One way or another, God shows in our midst.

 

Image above: Nativity, He Qi, ink and gouache on rice paper. See his website here

 

 

How to Design a Fair Decision-Making Process

I found this on a post by Al Pittampalli.  He has written a great little book on how to have productive meetings, and often has helpful resources like this article.  You can read more here.

First, communicate a clear, transparent process in advance of the decision. For example, the next time you’re thinking about changing the school dress code, send a memo first outlining the three-week process: week one — online survey to get feedback from parents, week two — town hall to get input from students and faculty, week three — executive meeting where the decision will ultimately be made. Furthermore, you’ll earn extra points if you indicate the criteria by which leadership will make their decision.

Second, leaders should be clear about how each individual or group gets to contribute to the decision, particularly: who gets a voice and who gets a vote? Leaders, however, not wanting to offend, frequently hesitate to make the distinction. Ironically, this ends up creating more offense in the long-run as people inevitably find out. Better to let them know up front.

Third, once a decision is made, leaders should explain not just what decision they’ve reached, but why. Communicating a clear rationale helps people understand that the decision was made based on the pre-determined criteria, not, as some are inclined to believe, the capricious whims of the leader.

Finally, and most importantly, leaders should be persuadable. If you’re heart is already set on a particular course of action and you have no good faith willingness to change your mind, then better to jettison the idea of a process altogether. Make your decision, communicate it to others, and move on. But if you do choose to go through the effortful and time consuming exercise of inviting others to the table before making your decision, make sure you come to that table with an open mind. Because people are generally good at sniffing out when the decision was a fait accompli.

Of course, a good process (and mindset) won’t guarantee people will like your decision. In fact, no matter what you decide, someone, somewhere undoubtedly won’t. That’s okay. Your job isn’t to convince them that the outcome is good, it’s to maximize the chance they see the process as fair.