Church Clutter

New Year, Clean Slate!

Clutter-free spaces communicate hospitality. The hotel industry understands this. Unfortunately, many churches don’t.

I’m on my way to a “Clean Up Day” at my church. I’m still quite new there — since Labor Day — and the church basement is in reasonably good shape. Still, it’s always good to sift through the flotsam and jetsam. Cleaning up is a good way to learn the church’s history, both formal and informal. I’ll take some “before” pictures of closets, although I expect it will be weeks before I have “after” pictures.

Meanwhile, I’ll repost an article I wrote a few years ago — to draw the connection between clutter and hospitality in church settings, and why I prioritize uncluttering. (more…)

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Church Clutter: Host or Guest?

This article is intended for church leaders and was published in the June edition of the NCP (National Capital Presbytery) Monthly. 

Do your church members think of themselves as hosts or as guests?

This question was posed to us by Henry Brinton during the Open Space portion of our May Presbytery meeting. His question comes from his upcoming book: The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality. 

The question resonated with me. I had arrived at the meeting after spending three hours helping a complete stranger tackle the boxes which were stacked triple-high in her living room. She is the first client for my newly-launched side business, ClutterCLEAR. She is determined to conquer all the loose ends which are crammed in these boxes, and which have taken over her life.

Clearing clutter is a spiritual practice because it creates space, which is essential to the spiritual life. When our lives feel like a jumble, it is difficult to open our ears and eyes to what the Spirit might like to do with us. Can we address the Big Questions when we have trouble with Where are my car keys? Can we invite the Spirit into our lives if we have to first clear a path to the front door?

Because clearing clutter is spiritual work, my heart is soft when I approach it. I feel the Spirit moving through the process, just as I might during a time of counseling or prayer. Clutter is often the residue of painful areas of our lives. Clutter reminds us of failures and unfinished business. Clutter represents projects or relationships that used to be important to us, but are no longer part of our lives. Clutter weighs us down.

When we begin to clear the clutter, the Spirit stirs up things that need to be resolved. In that sense, the work is painful. But if we are courageous, clearing clutter can be a tangible form of confession and absolution. It can create a spacious place for the Spirit to work. It can be incredibly liberating. A side benefit, of course, is that clearing the clutter creates a more pleasant living environment and also makes a space ready for guests.

Henry’s question  . . . Are you hosts or guests at church? . . . made me realize the connection between clutter-clearing and the work of the presbytery.

Clearing clutter is the work of a host. No wonder so many churches are bad at it! Hosting is hard work. It must be constantly repeated. Think of the tasks a host performs to be ready for a dinner party. Prepare the meal. Set the table. Light the candles. Empty the trash. Repeat.

What are the equivalent tasks at church? Recycle the unused bulletins. Shred the obsolete financial files. Purge the kitchen cupboards. Tidy the toys in the nursery. Repeat. When these tasks are accomplished in a timely way, it shows. The space is ready for guests, and is consistently presentable.

Cluttered space sends a clear message, whether or not that message is intentional. Clutter says that we are preoccupied with our own past–our messes, our failures, our unfinished business–and are unready to welcome our future, including guests.

Let me throw down a challenge to you and your church: Use this summer to become Clutter-Free!

Summers often have a different rhythm, with a bit more downtime at church. There is often less programming and fewer meetings. It is a perfect time to get a few motivated people together to clean things up! Let the Spirit move in a tangible way. If you need help, or a jump-start, let me know. I can perform a Church Clutter Audit.

Blessings upon you and your congregation as you prepare to be a host!

Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

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Church un-Cluttered

Two Church Closets: Before & After

Churches have a unique tendency to become cluttered, as I have blogged about before. But never underestimate the power of energetic volunteers!

The goals: 1) make items accessible;

2) create dedicated space for pulpit robe and worship materials.

BEFORE large closet

BEFORE small closet











AFTER large closet

AFTER small closet

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Self-Storage & Church Space

Chances are your church needs an income stream. Chances are it also needs to let go of something. What’s the connection?

America is good at holding onto things. According to an industry sourceThere is 7.3 sq.ft. of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation; thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.

That’s a lot of storage space! But have you driven back roads lately? Self-storage units are everywhere. Towns that are too small to support a gas station, and lack even one new home, have a brand-spanking-new storage enterprise. Interesting!

What does this mean for the church? For one thing, maybe churches with dwindling Sunday School attendance could retool their classroom space as rental storage units. After all, we’re talking premium climate-controlled space that is probably under-utilized.

The church classrooms built in the 1950s and 60s are no longer teeming with children. In a sense, they are a vestige of another time. Do we dare admit that this space is obsolete? If so, how poetic that this space should be converted to house the obsolete items that people cannot bring themselves to discard.

Brooks Palmer, the Clutter-Buster, calls storage unit fees “alimony” for the stuff we can no longer live with. I like that. It strikes me that churches are often willing to pay “alimony” for models of ministry that they can no longer live with.

I am kidding. In a way. But I do think we church leaders need to do some rethinking about our space, our space usage, and what it is that people need. Many things become obsolete, except for the gospel. How does our space usage advance that message? What do we need to be willing to let go of?

Chances are that most storage units are full of items that people need to let go.

Chances are that churches are full of ideas we need to let go.

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Hospitality: What the Church Can Learn from Air Bnb

airbnbI’m a Presbyterian pastor who often talks about hospitality, sometimes in relation to one of my other passions, which is uncluttering. Last spring my husband and I took the practice of hospitality to a new level when we became Air Bnb hosts. Air Bnb is part of the sharing economy.

Many people are curious about the experience of hosting. Why would we want to open up our home to complete strangers? I’ll readily say that the propelling reason was to create an income stream. Writing is rewarding in many ways, but not financially. But like many things a person does for economic reasons, we discovered other benefits. Being hosts made us feel better about staying in a larger-than-we-need house with unused bedrooms.

We welcomed our first guest last May — he stayed for a couple of weeks during a job transition. Since then many of our guests have been doctoral students, often from other countries. Only a few of our guests have been from the United States. I speculate that is due to our preoccupation with personal privacy. I have found it quite interesting to learn to navigate boundaries while there are strangers in the house. Usually it comes down to basic cleanliness, civility, and communication.

We have found some unexpected benefits to being an Air BnB Host (besides having become more regular about cleaning our bathrooms!).

For instance, we have discovered how quickly strangers can become friends. A chat at the kitchen table over a pot of tea is always pleasant. We have met guests who share our interests in many things: milkweed, the Chesapeake Bay, Buddhism, neuroscience, cats, new technology, the Shenandoah, the Civil War, organic cooking. Conversation has never lagged. At other times we have zero conversation with the guest, which is also fine.

We have the added pleasure of being a support to young people who are transitioning to the area. One young woman — upon hearing that I could squeeze her into a busy calendar — cried out: Why are you being so nice to me? I chuckled and said: Because once I was your age, relocating to a city where I didn’t know a soul. Upon reflection, I would say that this is the best part of being an Air Bnb host: paying hospitality forward. In a world that seems increasingly violent and full of tension, it feels good to add just a few drops of hospitality to the mix, and to ease someone’s burden.

We have also been guests a couple of times. When traveling we prefer Air BnB to “regular” B&Bs because they’re less costly, mainly because Air Bnb hosts don’t provide breakfast, only coffee and tea. A typical B&B provides a sumptuous breakfast and I don’t need the expense or calories every day. (Vacation model vs. Daily model)

As we’ve gone along, we’ve added a few rules. We have clarified the issue of friends staying overnight, for example. We ask overnight friends of guests to be registered, for security reasons. Recently I specified that no firearms are allowed in our home. I am fine with letting the rules evolve as we go. Also, I understand that there are regulatory/legal issues in some places; it is not my purpose to respond to those. I am only sharing my personal experience here.

If you read my blog, you know that I like to make comparisons to the church. Here are some Airbnb learnings that may have applications to how we do church:

~ Guests have different needs and it is possible to adjust to those if the host pays attention.

~ A clean, uncluttered environment says: I am ready for your arrival.

~ Effective hospitality requires rules, which evolve naturally from the situation and its needs.

~ Hospitality is often sweeter when it’s unexpected, meaning last-minute or after being caught in a surprise deluge. In fact, “crises” provide an opening to give and receive a gracious presence.

~ Sometimes hospitality is absolutely silent.

~ Hospitality is good for the host as well as the guest.

~ Most people like cats.

~ Perhaps most important, people have a very basic need to belong. And that need is not going away in our digitally connected world. Check out the video below. It introduces the new logo, which I agree has some unfortunate anatomical resonances. But that aside, what’s your reaction?

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Uncluttering Books

When I was growing up we didn’t have any extra money, so every book I read came from the library. I remember winning a couple of books through book-reading challenges at the library; those were precious.

Buying textbooks in college was a stretch financially, and I never bought books for pleasure. Then I went to graduate school and had to spend more on books, but they were more valuable to me than in college because I thought I was building a reference library in my field (theology). Then those bookshelves became “evidence of past learning.” People would come into my office and see all my books and know I had been to seminary! Plus I would research them for my sermon-writing.

Then two things happened: 1) the internet — and availability of some good reference materials in digital format; and 2) I became more aware of the economics of publishing — and more willing to buy a book simply to support the person who wrote it. After all, if I read it from the library, it does the author no good.

So that meant I simultaneously bought more books and was less attached to what I bought. Now I use a Kindle too and my intention is to purchase books in digital format most of the time. And I still use the library because I love libraries! But I will rather quickly buy a book at an author reading, especially if it’s a new author.

I don’t keep books, generally. I figure that if a book ISN’T good, I don’t want to keep it. If a book IS good, I want to give it to someone else to read. So I end up keeping only books that I haven’t read yet, or may want to reread (which is a truly small number) or which are reference books on scripture. Also, since there are four people in our house, sometimes books hang around for quite a while until everyone gets a chance to read it if they would like to.

I have given away shelves and shelves full of theology reference books too. At my last church I didn’t keep books in the office , as that wasn’t where I physically wrote my sermons. So I had a couple handy books, usually pastorally-focused there, something I might lend to someone about parenting, or marriage, or whatever.

But I have no need to convince anyone I am smart or well-educated by the books on my shelves. I am modestly smart and modestly educated. Hopefully people know that by talking to me. I never framed my diplomas either. I don’t need clutter which is “evidence of past learning.” I’m more interested in the future than the past

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What I Found In My Archive

a church father named Jerome

How do you handle paper clutter? I don’t mean bills and bank statements, because to me those are relatively easy to manage. For me, paper clutter is mainly things I’ve written: sermons, short stories, old letters, columns, articles, etc. Many of these predated my current computer, so I’ve had to decide if they were worth scanning, etc. I’m glad I have these type of papers, but sifting through them has required a lot of thought.

For a few months, I have been munching my way through the 3-drawer file cabinet that once contained twenty years’ worth of sermons. The file itself is gone and the usable contents are in digital form, dutifully backed up. A few items migrated into my “to archive” pile. Because my next writing project involves my past, it has seemed worthwhile to dive into my archive of old journals, letters, and college papers. I am knee-deep.

Some of these artifacts are quite fun to review. For example, I have my Kindergarten report card. I am happy to tell you that I got a red star–superior–in “Work Habits.” I’m curious. My only memory of working in Kindergarten involves a play ironing board. What was that you said about gender stereotypes? But many of my paper-triggered memories are not as much fun.

I am trying to move deliberately through this sifting/archiving process. I find that small steady bites is best. I am recycling about two-thirds of the paper and chronologizing the remaining one-third (it was all a jumble). (Following my principle: Never organize what you can just toss!)

I uncovered a paper I wrote on “The Church Fathers” in 1973 (tenth grade). One of the people I discussed was Jerome. I copied this quote from somewhere, without saying where I got it: “This type of man has his good qualities and his failings; he is obsessed by the desire to get on with his work, consumed by the inner flame which all those who live by the pen so well know. But he is also rather vain, very sensitive to criticism, extremely touchy, quick to consider anyone who does not share his way of thinking as the lowest of the low . .  . But nothing could be further from the truth than to regard him as simply a bookworm.”

I find it interesting that I found this quote interesting enough to record! Perhaps I was just filling up pages. But I wonder if I realized that these words could also describe me.

I had no idea that I’d find a long-lost twin in my archive!

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Oiling the Bike Chain: Distracting Myself from Writing

When I first met my husband, I was into long-distance bicycle riding. I was also very busy writing short stories and submitting them to contests. Early on in our relationship, my husband realized that whenever I got stuck on a story, I would get a powerful urge to go oil my bicycle chain. After all, it almost always needed doing!

But was it the most important thing that needed doing? No.

So, when I want to do something –even something productive– instead of writing, my husband asks me if I’m “oiling the bike chain.” That shorthand cuts through a lot of crap!

Now that I’m writing full time, I find that I have numerous and distinct urges to oil the bike chain. In this chapter of my life those fall into two main categories:

(1) Finding out about ministry-related jobs and applying for them.

(2) Starting the Clutter-Clear business.

Why? In the case of ministry, I crave the steady paycheck and the title. It is not easy to know who you are, once you no longer have a title. It rattles me to not have a steady income. It was a little addiction I didn’t even know I had: I was addicted to being somebody and getting recognition and reward. “I am the pastor of such and such church.” Now if somebody asks what will I say?

At least ministry is something productive I can do, something which needs doing. Like oiling that bicycle chain.

In the case of starting a new business –which doesn’t have any particular cachet or income– I think the appeal is that Clutter-Clearing simply seems easier than writing. Throwing things away is relatively easy, but throwing words away? Yikes.

I find that as a writing project nears completion, I am besieged by doubts. What if it’s not good enough! What if I fail! What if my words are finally published and make me look like an idiot!

For me, right now, writing and editing is the task set before me, and it has it’s own spiritual challenge. Can I move through my anxiety to completion?

Hmm, I wonder about that bicycle chain . . . .

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