The Body of Christ: Tough & Fragile

When I was in seminary I was taught: Small churches are tough. You can’t beat them to death with a stick! 

I believed that truism, and repeated it to others. Now I have fresh experience that allows me to see the backside of that truism, which is also true: Small churches are fragile.

So far in my career I have served two small churches as solo pastor — six years at Rock Creek Presbyterian (in a rural area outside Springfield, Illinois) and ten years at Poolesville Presbyterian (in a surprisingly rural corner of Montgomery County, Maryland).

Both of those congregations had long histories and many strengths. But both congregations also had serious weaknesses in three pivotal areas: histories that included conflicted relationships with previous pastors, inadequate buildings, and very few financial assets (less than $20,000 total savings). In some senses those weaknesses functioned as strengths because they had gotten everyone’s attention. The lay leaders knew that their churches were on the brink of failure and were ready to work hard — and perhaps even take some risks — to save them. Accordingly, I was able to enter into a robust partnership with the lay leaders and have fruitful ministry.


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1001 Worshipping Communities: Missteps

Every institution needs an interested but detached observer. Today (Nov 7) the Presbyterian Outlook, which is that eye upon the PCUSA, published a story titled Investigation finds four PCUSA employees committed ethics violations. I encourage you to read the article in full. Kudos to Leslie Scanlon for her reporting.

The story focuses on the creation of an entity to handle funds for 1001 Worshipping Communities, an initiative begun in 2012 for the purpose of making it easier to birth new worshipping bodies. As a pastor who desires to see more churches, and healthier churches, I applaud this initiative. The gospel of Jesus Christ can spread in a myriad of ways, both traditional and non-traditional. New bodies are perhaps the best way to make new disciples. Yes, “1001” is the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a Presbyterian.

The article doesn’t suggest that any denominational employee intended malfeasance. Rather, they bungled. Nevertheless, it’s my understanding that in the corporate world, some of these persons would be out of a job. Some people would argue that the church is different; the system should be more merciful. What is your opinion?

I confess that I am a bit jaded about the fiscal/legal ignorance of well-meaning people. That ignorance negatively impacts the church’s ability to conduct business, both in reality, and by diminished reputation. It’s an unfortunate fact that in recent years my presbytery has wasted huge amounts of money through poor fiscal choices that boxed us into corners. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. But having good intentions does not offset the reality of poor preparation and lack of savvy.

My lens is that of a small-church pastor. (Rock Creek Presbyterian, Tallula, IL 1993-1999 and Poolesville Presbyterian, Poolesville, MD 2002-2011). Both of those churches did unexpected things and even took financial risks. They are still in existence. Many such churches have closed down. I understand how “close to the bone” many churches operate. Perhaps that is one reason that mismanagement in church bureaucracy is particularly galling to me. I can’t help but think how much good small congregations can do with even a few thousand dollars.

It is/was one of my theological tenets that the church is a mission outpost and should therefore operate at the edge of its resources. I certainly don’t mind when church leadership (both clergy and lay) takes risks. Often that is the faithful path. I do mind when church leadership tries to play in a corporate world and simply doesn’t know what it’s doing. Those kinds of missteps damage the reputation of the Body of Christ. That damage should concern all of us.

I’m glad that this misstep is not being ignored or hushed up. Hopefully 1001 Worshipping Communities will be back on its feet, and the lessons learned will work to the good.

I intend to hold my denomination in prayer with special vigor this weekend. I invite you to do the same, whether that’s the PCUSA or some other body.

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Farewell to Poolesville Presbyterian Church!

Most unusual: The parking lot was already lined with cars when we pulled in. Inside the church office, my desktop was almost clear.

I made photocopies of various last-minute instruction lists and reminders, and posted them in conspicuous places, the way you might for your first overnight babysitter.

When I attempted to enter the fellowship hall, my way was barred. “You’re not allowed in.” They didn’t want me to see the cake for my farewell reception.

When I entered the sanctuary, I was greeted by a few faces I hadn’t seen in some time. “We wanted to say Goodbye,” they said. My heart was warmed by their presence. I laid my sermon in it’s spot on the pulpit, resisting the thought: “for the last time.”

I draped my black pulpit robe over my arm, debated whether or not to wear it. The temperature in the sanctuary would hover around 72, and I always get so warm when I preach. But I wanted to wear my robe because it makes my role official, and I wanted to wear my red stole because it was Pentecost, and because the red stole once belonged to my friend Karen Blomberg, and I wanted to feel her presence over me, as one of the saints who has gone ahead. In the end, I decided to leave the robe off while I preached, and to put it on before the sacrament.

While I thought this through, the tone chimes were practicing their Introit, so the sanctuary was full of tinkling sounds and people counting aloud, under their breath. When they finished, the choir ran through their anthem, Guide My Feet. The choir director, who once was a bit intimidated by her role, was in full command of the situation. While they sang, I changed the hymn numbers in their wooden slots, and did not let myself think: for the last time.

Then I had to sit in my red throne chair and look at the stained glass window of Jesus until I calmed down. An old friend entered, someone who had been estranged from the congregation, and I went down the aisle to give her a hug. Other church members got up to do the same. I blinked back tears, and took my throne chair again. Looked at Jesus again.

The sanctuary filled, and I tilted my head to look at people in both balconies. A woman I didn’t recognize was in the middle of a pew, and I couldn’t figure out if she belonged to the people on either side of her or not. I did the announcements as the last few people entered. The Tone Chimes played Great Is Thy Faithfulness without flaw. The Call to Worship was from Joel: “God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh, and our sons and our daughters shall prophesy. Our old ones shall dream dreams and our young ones shall see visions.” Then a Pentecost hymn: Holy Spirit, Wind and Flame, move within our mortal frame.

We confessed our sins together and I pronounced the Assurance of Pardon. Did not let myself think: for the last time. Then a church member sang a solo in Spanish, Jesus Es Mi Rey Soberano, which is a Christ the King hymn, a lovely lilting number.

We read a Psalm responsively, which is one of my favorite traditions in this congregation: that moment where we page through the Bibles together and lift up our voices from the Word of God. I never skip verses the way the lectionary does, so we read the gnarly ones too, so we said “Let sinners be consumed from the earth.”

Then a teenaged boy read 1 Corinthians 12, the great passage on the Church as the Body of Christ. Our gospel was a snippet from John’s gospel, a tiny passage, really, just a few verses, but oh, they are the climax of the whole gospel: the resurrected Jesus sends the Spirit on his disciples by breathing on them. We didn’t hear this read, but instead watched it on video, from “The Gospel of John.”

At Time with Children, I sat on the step and the children and I batted around a red balloon printed with the words Holy Spirit which was a leftover from last Sunday’s worship service. We talked about Pentecost a little and that I was leaving. I had baptized many of those children and I didn’t let myself think: But I will never confirm them.

As the children left, we sang: Come as the dove and spread Your wings, the wings of peaceful love: And let the church on earth become blest as the church above.

Then I preached a sermon titled Breath & Body. I stuck closer to my manuscript than usual, but couldn’t follow it exactly, had to let words I hadn’t anticipated come flowing out of my mouth as I looked at the faces of my people and was seized by that irrepressible desire to communicate something I hadn’t known I needed to say until I saw them there. I spoke about the power of the Spirit, the power to forgive sin, to shed guilt, to let go of the things that hold us down. I’m used to it now, the way something like that grabs me, but it’s still disconcerting and oh, I wrestle with wanting to weigh those words even as they come from my mouth. Then I looked down at the manuscript and kept preaching, about the two texts from John and First Corinthians. I talked about the church’s past, and it’s future. I talked about my own future in ministry. I felt I owed them a word of explanation — why do I need to leave, what is it I aim to write? So I told them in two sentences, including a joke, and they laughed because they are good that way, good at laughing when they should. And I also told them the hard truth about what I intend to write, because it will be a hard task, this writing. But if God tells you to do something, then you must. That part, I am sure about.

I ended the sermon by telling them “what I would suggest you do if I were here” and when I got to the third thing, I said, “You know what this is,” and they chorused out the response: “Tear down the manse.” Obviously, I have communicated that part of my vision for them!

We took up the collection afterwards, and as usual I stood up front with the elders facing me, the offering bags in their hands. Those elders are both choir members and they harmonize on the Doxology. I almost began to cry then, but the thing that saved me was joining in the singing, a little too loud.

Then it was time to preside over communion, to say the words of welcome, to lead the great prayer, The Lord be with you, and to hear them respond, And also with you. To pronounce the Words of Institution and lift the bread and break it. I tore it into chunks on the plate because I like the feel of it in my hands and I was greedy to tear it this last time. Don’t think the last time.

An elder stood beside me at the table, an elder I baptized a few years ago, an elder who had never been to church before he came to this one. He had missed the email that I would like him to serve communion this day, and he was wearing a Sesame Street T-shirt, but I said it didn’t matter, he should still serve beside me. He held the bread while I held the common cup. The people came forward while everyone sang. I served them by name, and I didn’t have trouble until the end, when I’d used up my quota of names. It was the last row and I looked at those dear faces and names escaped me for a moment of panic. Like a dust mote I spied just outside my line of vision, I glimpsed them and got them on my tongue in time.

I got one name wrong, one of the teenagers. I have missed his name before, far too many times — it got laid down in my brain wrong from the get-go — and after he took the sacrament I grabbed his sleeve and said he must absolve me for sinning against him these too-many times.

When everyone was served, we finished singing the final song: Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.

Then we did something I’ve never done before: The Ritual of Saying Farewell. Our Clerk of Session represented the congregation, and our Associate Presbyter represented the presbytery. We prayed, responsively, and my portion prayed for mercy, “for work begun but not completed, for expectations not met, for wounds not healed, for gifts not shared, for promises not kept.” Then the Clerk’s portion prayed thankfulness for the reverse. Then the presbytery rep pronounced the dissolution: Do you, the members and friends of PPC release Ruth from service as your pastor?”

Then, because I had wished it, I knelt and everyone gathered around me, filling the aisle and connecting together throughout the church like an undulating conga line, to lay their hands on me and bless me.

After I was back on my feet, the choir ended with their anthem, which had everyone on their feet, and I pronounced my final benediction. Yes, for the last time.

I shook hands at the door, and there were lots of hugs. One couple is leaving the church because of the denomination’s decision to open the way for gays to be ordained. My association with this couple has been exceedingly civil and pleasant, and I am sorry to see them go, but they must do what they must do. I was grateful to be able to shake their hands one last time and say, “Peace” and “God bless you.”

As the teenager came out — the one I called by the wrong name — he shook my hand and said, “I forgive you.” And so we are surrounded by peace.

Then we went to eat cake, but oh! They surprised me with so much more. The hall was complete with cloth tablecloths and flower arrangements and a lunch from Famous Daves. It was the first and only catered meal I have eaten in that fellowship hall so I felt very loved. I circulated among the tables like a bride at a wedding, and was that full of gratitude that each one was there.

There was an enormous cake decorated in red, and after we’d cut the cake, they presented me with gifts. The gifts were perfectly chosen. Perfectly. They gave me a gorgeous memory book filled with pictures and notes from the members of the congregation, all beautifully displayed. Each page is a work of art. I choke up when I touch it. The other gift was a certificate to spend a week at Holy Cross Abbey, the place I go to be in silence and to write. So they are supporting my new ministry, this ministry of word committed to paper. They had a gift for my husband too, a pair of trekking poles, which are much appreciated.

Then people got up and said lovely things about my time among them. I can’t repeat them here, they weren’t my words to share, but they were full of grace. What a decade we had! What changes have happened! My daughters each spoke, which surprised and touched me. I had the opportunity to say something, but had nothing left to say. Oh, there was much I could have said, but I had used up my allotment of words for the day. So instead I asked if we could sing the Doxology again.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

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What I’ll Miss: a pastor’s thoughts on leaving her church

After almost a decade at my church, I am leaving to pursue writing full time, at least for a season. This coming Sunday is my last day in the pulpit! Here are just a few of the things that I’m going to miss . . .

I’ll miss my place in the sanctuary, the red velvet throne that’s lost its springs. I’ll miss looking at the stained glass window and studying Jesus’ face. I’ll miss watching people enter, their posture telling me something about their week. I’ll miss praying for them; will miss praying for the Spirit upon the service.

I’ll miss choosing hymns, which is a whole body experience, my fingers leafing through the hymnal’s smooth pages as I hum tunes and whisper lyrics, searching for the right words, the right mood for a particular text, a particular day.

I’ll miss the early Sunday clear of Highway 7 and the sound of my car tires rolling onto White’s Ferry. I’ll miss turning my head to watch the fog lift from the Potomac or to search for the wings of a great blue heron.

I’ll miss holding the communion bread in my hands and tearing it. I’ll miss the words I pronounce, but didn’t write, mysterious words I say in tandem with other preachers from other places and time, words of comfort and challenge: Take and eat.

I’ll miss praying before Session meetings with an agenda on the table before me, all too aware I’m not big enough to lead, but grateful that the Spirit of God, and the elders around the table, will lead with me.

I’ll miss drinking coffee between worship services, chatting about things of no consequence until, unexpectedly; someone shows me what’s on their heart, their mind, their spirit. I’ll miss the tears that spring to my eyes as we breathe a prayer together, silent or aloud, tears of petition, or thankfulness.

I’ll miss standing on someone’s front steps, ringing a doorbell and praying they’ll be glad to see me, praying the Spirit will move between us, praying I’ll find the right words.

I’ll miss the way the light shines through Jesus, the stained glass Jesus beside the empty tomb. His robes are white and his hair lanky and brown. There’s a chip on his chin — a blemish from some rock flung up by a long ago lawnmower and the chip refracts the light. The blemish is perfectly round, like a bullet hole. It’s this wound which pierces my heart, this collision of the most mundane thing, lawn care, and this most holy thing, our risen Lord. For isn’t that exactly what ministry is? For years I’ve sat in my red throne chair, studying that Jesus, observing the way we wound him carelessly from generation to generation, and how, even so, the light gets through.

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Sunday Report: Reaffirming Baptism

Today was a first: a Renewal of Baptism at our church. The occasion came about because a new member requested it, someone who had been previously baptized, but who wanted to mark the occasion of joining this church with a renewal of baptismal vows. So yes, Session decided to offer the ritual to everyone. What a pleasure to go through the baptismal liturgy, then be able to put the water on the foreheads of my dear congregants as they knelt before me! I said their name and then a brief prayer (below). What a blessing! My own elder daughter came forward, and my husband. I did not baptize either of them, so it was a real treasure to perform this ritual for them.

My prayer (from our WorshipBook) was: “O Lord, uphold your servant (first name). Daily increase in her/him your gifts of grace that she/he may continue as yours forever, until she/he comes, at last, into your everlasting Kingdom, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” As I said the trinitarian formula, I made a cross on their wet forehead with my thumb.

I will miss these people, individually, and these people, as a group! It is so bittersweet to be winding down a decade of ministry. They really ARE “the people of God.”

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What I’ll Miss about Pastoring

Since I’ve announced to my congregation that I’m leaving (see earlier post “Downshifting”), I have been thinking about good endings. I’ll blog about that soon and welcome your thoughts, meantime.

Meantime, I’m noticing the various gifts of ministry that I will miss. Two of them come to mind most forcefully:

1) the opportunity to live with a text in my head at all times (of course I can still do that but I think it may be different), and

2) the opportunity to see the “inside” of other people’s lives in the precise way clergy do (with the resultant gift of perspective).

I’m sure I’ll think of others as I go, I just wanted to capture these here and now.

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Salvation, and other Edges

What does it mean to be saved?

How is salvation effected?

What is the role of the cross in salvation?

Last night was the first time I have been at a church discussion group where we did not assume that we all knew the “right” answers to these questions, and had no trouble with them.

Refreshing. But a bit disconcerting, perhaps. Does the faith community exist to help us with the questions or the answers?

I realize that there are skills/approaches I need to develop to be a better leader for this sort of gathering. I love it when I glimpse this sort of growing edge.

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What Will Happen Next?

This was published in NCP Monthly (National Capital Presbytery) this morning.

A Baptist minister, a Methodist pastor, a Catholic priest, an Episcopalian rector and a Presbyterian clergywoman walk into a fellowship hall . . .

What will happen next?

Perhaps the scene is familiar. In Poolesville, we clergy gather once a month for a bring-your-own-bag lunch. We rotate from church to church, meeting in fellowship halls with their inevitably dingy floors and crayon-smeared tables. Some of us would rather meet in a restaurant but we defer to the weaker brother, in this case, the one without a discretionary budget for frivolities like lunch.

In years past our five churches have jointly hosted an ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve service. The service has always been poorly attended, drawing only a few faithful folk from each of the churches and no one from the community outside the churches. So this year, after much discussion, we let go of that tradition and asked ourselves: How else could we worship together?

I suggested we recognize World Communion Sunday (first Sunday in October) or perhaps the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. While there was no objection in theory, there was every objection in practice. The clergy were unwilling to interrupt their usual worship schedule on Sunday morning with some sort of ecumenical variation. Too, if we held the service in the evening, how would it be any more successful than the one for Thanksgiving?

I suggested a pulpit exchange. That way everyone could stay where they are on Sunday morning and we could move just the clergy around.

Well. The Episcopalians can’t worship without the sacrament and must have their own clergy present, if not presiding. Same with the Catholics, of course. The Baptists can’t allow an outsider in their pulpit. Can’t or won’t.

That left the Methodists and Presbyterians (incidentally, these churches face each other across the street). So Rev. Ken Fell, the Methodist minister, and I went ahead and swapped pulpits on January 23. As far as we know, it was a first in Poolesville.

It felt like a big thing. But it also felt like a small, long-overdue thing.

I preached from First Corinthians, about divisions in the body. But the words that seemed to resonate with the congregation weren’t from Paul. Do you know this Mark Twain quote? “There are two kinds of people in the world. People who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don’t.”

I ended my sermon with this: “Let’s face it, both of our denominations are declining. The mainline churches are losing their grip on America. I’m not of a mind to moan about this fact. As far as we know, this is a good thing. This is an opportunity to do something different, under the guidance of the Spirit. How might we work together?” I went on to suggest five specific ways we could be involved in mutual ministry.

What will happen next? I’d love to hear what works in your local ecumenical gatherings!

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Color It Purple: God Loves You

Last Wednesday, Oct 20 was designated by the Facebook community as a day to wear purple to support LGBT youth. This was part of the larger It Gets Better campaign in response to the recent rash of suicides by young men who had been bullied because of their sexual orientation. What’s especially sad is that these suicides were probably not all that unusual.

My heart goes out to any person, especially any young person, who feels so isolated and hopeless. I believe that God loves all people, no matter their sexual orientation. I believe that sexual orientation is a gift from God, a birthright. I appreciate the people of faith who have made videos to say: It Gets Better. Indeed, it does. The least I could do on Oct 20, I felt, was wear my purple tee-shirt that says LGBTerrific! on the front.

That night our cafe had (only) two guests who were not from our church, a mother and a son. The son immediately noticed my shirt and asked me about it. I was able to tell him that our denomination was struggling over this issue (to the point of polarization) but that I, personally, was supportive of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered. He was a smart young man, well-spoken, with many interests. We had an interesting conversation about the role of the church in these kind of social situations. Once the ice was broken, he talked my ear off. We agreed that a community of faith is precious because it is one place that people from both ends of the political spectrum can come together in service of something larger than their own opinion.

It’s dicey to be a religious leader and hold an opinion on a subject where people have a variety of opinions. However, I feel the call to be more vocal in my support of people who are LGBT. Whether or not I ever see this particular young man again, I hope he knows that at least one religious leader is absolutely sure that it’s okay to be gay.

We say that God loves everybody. Today I want to color that purple.

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Hospitality, What Is It?

As our church moves ahead on a ConnectCafe ministry, I’m pondering what it means to offer hospitality. It’s more than offering coffee and internet access, I’m sure of that.

Our culture has reduced the concept of hospitality to having really nice cookware. Then we can all pretend we’re food critics. I am very tired of this. Hospitality is a lot more costly than buying cookware. (And besides, I have noticed that people with nice cookware never seem to ask me over for dinner.)

Our church culture has lost it’s way here, too, I fear. Hospitality is not just having decent coffee, although that helps. And nice buildings and comfy furniture help too. But it goes deeper, doesn’t it? True hospitality is about an attitude of the heart that accommodates things we would rather not accommodate, just because they’re important to someone else. And I don’t mean just muddy boots, although they make a fine metaphor. True hospitality means having space in the heart to welcome the stranger. It’s costly, plus it’s at least a little bit dangerous. Dangerous because it threatens preconceived notions.

Just for fun, here’s a list of places/experiences that have made me ponder hospitality in the past 2 weeks:

~ we’re remodeling a kitchen so it is nice for parties, etc.

~ we’ve had a house full of strangers during said remodeling

~ I spent four days at the Holy Cross Abbey enjoying the silent hospitality of monks (and left my muddy boots behind!)

~ my church’s building is changing as we remodel the fellowship hall to make ready our ConnectCafe

~ our Session moved its meeting place last night to accommodate a Relay for Life meeting in our fellowship hall

~ a visitor came to our early service with a small child and we had to scramble to accommodate them, but everyone did so with happy hearts

~ would they have done so if the parent of said child had been a gay couple?

~ we decided not to fill the sanctuary with lillies this Easter because people with allergies are always miserable on that day

 the list could go on . . .

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