Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Getting Out of the Comfort Zone

This is my newsletter article for the September Bethlehem Star

Not my actual view or chair
I have two chairs in my home that are my chairs – they are the chairs that I’m most likely to sit in and I love being able to curl up in a blanket and read in them or work on my computer or watch tv.  And while I would never tell anyone (other than Bob) to get out of my chair, when I sit other places in the same room things just aren’t the same. Those chairs are my comfort zone.  

I’m sure I’m not alone.  Most of us have a comfort zone.  We love to go to restaurants where we know what everything on the menu is.  We enjoy listening to music or watching tv shows or movies that seem familiar.  We tend to read the same one or two genres of books.  We like doing activities that we know we are good at because we have done them before.  We enjoy our comfort zone.

Often it is good to get out of our comfort zones.  In fact it is often needed.  It is good to try new and different foods, often that is our first introduction to a culture.  We can’t guarantee that by listening to music, watching a movie or reading a book that is different than what we normally prefer that we will like it, but we are broadening our understanding of the world and sometimes we do walk away with a new favorite.  When we try a new activity, whether it is a sport, hobby, craft or event, we find new connections to talk to other people and sometimes new passions for ourselves. 

God calls us to come out of our comfort zones, to do things we would not ordinarily do in order to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, support the orphaned and widow.  God calls us to get out of our comfortable chairs and ask our friends and neighbors about what their needs are. 

It is scary to get out of our comfort zones, to do something new.  And sometimes we will protest the entire time and refuse.  But God is asking us to state our fear and do it anyway.  And instead of living with the fear, we can live with the grace of knowing that God is with us, the grace that comes from doing God’s work in this world.

So what do you say, will you set out of your comfort zone with me?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Overwhelming Church

This past week during a visit from family members I had pretty much the same, but individual conversations with one of Bob's siblings and his wife.  It was basically about their church lives, or lack of church life, now.

About a year ago they moved into a house about 15 miles from the church they were previously attending and pretty much used the move as an excuse to stop attending worship at that congregation. This is a reasonable excuse in the upper Midwest where there are about 100 congregations within a 15 mile radius.  The congregation had been wonderful to them when they first joined and especially during the birth of their son - for a few weeks fellow congregation members brought them dinner every night so they did not have to figure out how to feed themselves on top of learning to take care of a new baby.

However they quickly began to feel overwhelmed.  My sister-in-law liken the congregation to a clingy
boyfriend that doesn't take the hint that you aren't looking for the same level of commitment.  They would be asked to help out with various events - not because they had the gifts and skills needed for the event or were passionate about the project but because they needed 8 more people to have this event happen and can't they be 2 of the 8.

They would often say yes but out of guilt instead of out of a sense of calling or that they personally were needed. And if they said no they still felt guilt because they were made to feel that it would be because of their lack of attendance that an event would not take place.  They were made to feel like just warm bodies to fill a slot instead of followers of Jesus called to use their ability to show God's love and grace to the world.

Unfortunately I believe that my family are not the only people to experience an overwhelming church.

In blogs that have appeared in response to Rachel Held Evan's post about Why Millennials are Leaving the Church, people have addressed the desire to do ministry not just fulfill roles. It is when we are asked to just fulfill a role that we have a hard time finding Jesus in churches.  Yesterday Rozella White, the ELCA Young Adult Ministries, in her address to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, discussed her response when people ask "Where are the young adults? How can we get young adults in our congregation?"  Often people want young adults in their congregation just for institutional survival.  They are tokens who are supposed to be seen but not heard as they cover the missing demographic. They want young adults to fill in slots as a warm body so the church can continue to move on as it always has.

This isn't true for just young adults, but for all new members.  Sometimes congregations are so excited for fresh faces, fresh hands to do the work, that they reach out too overwhelmingly to new members. Evangelism becomes code for getting new people to take over the work you are tired of doing.

But we are called as a church to not be the overwhelming church were we ask people to fill slots and preformed roles in order to maintain the status quo.  We are called to be the church that allows people to explore their assets, their gifts, their skills, their passions in order to use themselves to be the church, to do ministry in this world.

Unfortunately I can't say I am blameless. And here I repent my sins. I know that I have been the overwhelming church - I have asked new members to do too much, to be on too many committees, to help plan too many events, to be the warm body and fill a slot instead of using their gifts for God's work in their world.

But I'm learning. I'm learning to protect new members, to not ask them to do anything for at least a year after they join, but allowing them to join the congregation in ways of doing ministry that they feel called to. While I can't go back in time and fix my past mistakes of being an overwhelming church, I hope to stop future mistakes as I never want to be the clingy boyfriend.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Stewardship for the Younger Generations

Last week I attended "Stewardship for Adults Under 40" conference at Luther Seminary.  It was another FABULOUS conference with a lot of great speakers and ideas presented.  And coming right off Rethinking Evangelism (that I wrote briefly about here) I didn't think I could possibly have two great, thought provoking conferences in a row that gave not just great ideas but good theological and biblical grounding in the topic, but I was wrong.

However it was far from the same conference.  First off the vibe was much different.  We were in a smaller space, with less people, but we packed the space.  The average age of the attendees were also younger which probably lead to greater conversation on Twitter and which, for me, enhanced the experience.

But to the meat of the experience - thoughts and ideas that I have taken away from the conference.  Well this is what I posted on Facebook last Wednesday when we were wrapping up:
Ideas from Stewardship for Young Adults Under 40: Giving kiosks. Online giving. Debt exercise. Budget planning/mentoring. Give outside the church, use kickstarter for ideas. Tithe elsewhere for 2 months. Dollar cross. Sermon series on money, not just giving/fundraising. Credit card cross exercise. Tax filing parties. Connect members with lawyers for estate planning and wills-ask for gift. Admit there is need not just in town but also in congregation. Liturgy for job loss and new hire. Website -use the word donate or give. Tell personal giving story, including struggles. Giving circles. Give to the max day/month. I plan to give online note for offering plate, email Mon with details on how to do that. "I give to..." social media badge. THANK THE GIVER regardless of amount.

One friend replied that these ideas seem more about making giving easier than discussing the reason why we give.  And yes some of these are to make giving easier (i.e. giving kiosks and online giving) for a generation of people who don't carry cash on them and most of the time have no clue where their checkbook is (that would be me). But many of these ideas are about addressing the entire view that we have towards money and giving in our society and in our faith.  They also encourage giving without the entire approach being solely about begging for money (which let's face it, many congregations are guilty of).

Talking about debt, admitting that most people in worship on Sunday mornings owe money to someone, is often a taboo that we don't talk about in churches, much less in worship.  If it is ever mentioned, it is about the price of seminary education and that is why pastors need to be paid, and occasionally we talk about student loans in general.  But the average indebted American has $15,000 in credit card debt and another $32,000 in student loan debt (Bob's and my student loan debt is well over three times this number).  Admitting that each one of us has to make choices every month about which bills we pay is a healthy and positive thing.  Just realizing that you are not alone can often make one's spirit feel freer and allow us to feel more connected to the Body of Christ and not that we are cancerous mole that needs to be removed. It also means we can then start talking about systemic issues and how this burden of debt is affecting the Body of Christ.

Encouraging worshipers to give to their money to God by tithing is something that has been part of the church forever (if it wasn't just flat out law).  But many people today see this as a way for the church to have money and be financially sound instead of a spiritual practice.  Instead, by encouraging people to give that money to another organization for 2 months shows that the offering a congregation collects on Sunday is not about paying the bills (but let's also admit that is how the bills do get paid).  Instead the act of an offering is so that people can give back to God what God belongs to God.  It is a spiritual practice.  And if we encourage tithing solely for the sake of spiritually and not for personal gain by the congregation, we are encouraging people to learn about why they give.  And if after 2 months that person decides to continue giving to that other organization and not give a dime to the congregation (well first off I doubt that would happen, but maybe they give half to the church) so what? - we have encouraged giving in and through faith which is what Jesus calls us as church leaders to do, not to paid our personal coffers.

Another idea that was brought up was church endowments.  Many congregations, especially in Mainline denominations, are living off their endowments today and those endowments are dwindling.  Endowments are most often set up when someone remember the congregation in their death, by giving a gift in their will.  But many young adults don't have a will (again that is fact haven't even really considered it since I don't have kids) and many older adults wills might be out of date, or they were never asked to consider the church in their wills.  We need to start to asking people to remember the church in their wills.  Again not just because we want their money but because through their death, the church can continue to do ministry for future generations.  But that also means making rules about how endowment money can and should be used.  Most people are only able to give modest gifts in their deaths and therefore want their money to go to directly doing ministry, not to just sit in a bank account so the congregation can slowly live (or die) off its interest.  Therefore congregations need to invest time developing endowment policies that use money to enhance ministry in this world and in their community.  And many congregations do not have endowment policies and therefore the money is sitting in a bank, waiting for a rainy day, instead of being used to do good in this world.

I have so many more ideas and thoughts that are still rumbling through my head from my two weeks learning about evangelism and stewardship.  And in many ways I don't know where to start but I don't want those ideas to get pushed to the back of my mind as I get back into the normal swing of things and get caught up from almost 2 weeks away.  So for now I will start with telling my story and thinking about my spending and giving habits.  My credit card is now bearing a new Sharpie drawn cross which was done during worship this past Sunday and each time I have pulled it out I've thought a little bit about what I am spending and if I'm using God's resources wisely.  And each time we pause, even for a second and think about our spending and our giving, we are thinking about stewardship and about the reasons that we give because it all really belongs to God in the first place.