“A Pastor’s #MeToo Story” at Christian Century

#ChurchToo

I’m happy — and rather nervous — to say that my article is on the cover of the Christian Century (January 2018). It’s a deeply personal story that I have not told before:         A Pastor’s #MeToo Story

I also wrote an accompanying list:  18 Ways Churches Can Fight Sexual Assault in 2018.

As always, I look forward to your feedback. #ChurchToo

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Can You Go Home Again?

I Will Be Discovering One Answer

Everyone has to leave home eventually (although I do know one fella who never did, he just outlived his parents!). Perhaps what differs is the manner in which we leave.

What was it like when you left home? Did you launch happily, feeling supported and connected, or did you burn rubber on your way out? In my case, an unfortunate event — or yes, a series of them — catapulted me into the ether and sent me into free-fall.

Perhaps some of you have a story similar to mine — you found yourself loving Jesus, but not the church that introduced you to him, and you had to escape. (more…)

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“Thirsty? A sermon on the Samaritan Woman at the Well”
by Rev. Ruth Everhart

 

The text is John 4:5-42, the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman at the well in Sychar.

Thirst is real, and water is a justice issue. When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, he implicitly challenged every cultural assumption about who is worthy of his time and conversation. But this shift has been slow to percolate through the cultural layers of church and society. Rev. Ruth Everhart considers the Samaritan woman’s story in tandem with her own, because gender still shapes a woman’s world. How did living water trickle through the layers of an oppressive church system and the horror of rape at gunpoint? Because the living water is still available, and still ever-fresh. (Year A, Lent 3)

Preachers, Please State the Obvious

what to do if there's a Confederate battle flag flying outside your sanctuary

Over the holiday weekend, my husband and I went on a road trip into the Shenandoah. We’ve explored Staunton before, so this time we headed a bit further south, to Lexington. Those thirty extra miles made a huge difference, dropping us from northern Virginia into southern Virginia. Or perhaps it was the timing of our visit.

Uppermost in our mind was the federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But it turns out that the Lexington area simultaneously celebrates a state holiday called Lee/Jackson Day. We were clued in by seeing a group of people marching and waving flags — the battle flags of the Confederacy. It was a disturbing sight.

The corner where they were marching happens to be the site of the Lexington Presbyterian Church. (Being church geeks we slow down and read the sign of every church we pass.)

On Sunday we returned to that corner to worship at that church. The congregation is obviously a strong institution doing many things right. The greeter and other worshipers gave us a warm, but not obnoxious, welcome. The music featured a gorgeous organ. The texts for the day were taken from the lectionary, and the preacher had a fine sermon based on the passages from Isaiah and First Corinthians.

But something basic was missing. During the service, not a mention was made about either holiday, or what they mean. Perhaps living with institutions like Virginia Military Institute and Washington Lee University inure a person to certain historic realities. Whereas I was still catching up with some basic facts. I hadn’t realized, for instance, that Lexington was the burial place of Stonewall Jackson, or that Robert E. Lee had actually served as President of Washington Lee University. (DUH. I know.)

Still, if I were a visitor with no ties to the Presbyterian church, I would assume that the church didn’t say anything about the matter of racial equality because it has nothing to say, even on the confluence of these historic days. That grieves me.

Please, my preaching friends, let’s take time to state the obvious. Because to too many people — even fellow Christians — certain things are no longer obvious.

As Christians, we stand against racial injustice, in its historic forms, and in its present forms. We stand with Jesus for the full equality of all humans. Racial inequality is sin.

As church leaders, the question is: How does that stand drive our church’s mission? The answer will depend on context. I’ve never pastored a church in the South, so perhaps I’m missing some foundational fact. But it seems to me that when you stand in a place that waves confederate battle flags on Saturday, the church needs to have a clear message against racial injustice on Sunday.

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Benediction: Christian, Jew & Muslim @NationalCathedral

My footsteps echoed in the marble chamber so I lifted my heels to keep them from hitting the tile floor. In the transept, the “great choir” was singing Evensong. The unaccompanied voices drifted through the nave like wisps of pure music, beyond words.

liturgyI was in the National Cathedral to attend an interfaith prayer service held in the War Memorial Chapel. The National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF) was beginning its annual conference this new way last Monday evening, and I attended as a visitor.

At the service, sacred scriptures were read by three military chaplains: a Christian pastor, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim muezzin. There were prayers and liturgical responses. There was also a meditation by a Christian professor-type, who talked about the three reasons that military chaplains are indispensable. To close, the three faith leaders put arms around shoulders and each gave a blessing from their tradition.

I was glad to be able to worship in this venue. The War Memorial Chapel is a significant location, bearing testimony to the unique relationship between our nation and its religious life. This is an Episcopalian place of worship, but one dedicated to be a house of prayer for all people. This was the place where the names of all 58,000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam were read — a service that spanned 5 days — as a prelude to the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982. There is a National Roll of Honor housed in the chapel. Various works of art each bear history. Of particular note is the cross made from pieces of the Pentagon in the wake of 9/11.

As an outsider, and a “religious professional” it would be easy for me to point out some mis-steps of the experience. Outsider eyes always notice the inconsistencies and the just-missed. But I have no interest in being critical. Instead I cherish and applaud the good effort I experienced.

As I sat in the War Memorial Chapel, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a difficult undertaking freedom of religion is. What a perilous thing it is. What a crazy experiment that democracy itself has proved to be. No wonder it is so stressful for our nation. How can we expect to pass this “way of life” to the whole world — this vision of freedom and harmony — when no single faith group seems able to embody it?

I sit down to write about this experience a few days after it happened — and in the meantime news of a fracture within the Episcopal Church is in the news. The Anglican Church (worldwide) has sanctioned the Episcopal Church (United States) for the next three years, over disagreements about same-sex marriage. The news was shocking, and in hindsight, not surprising at all.

In truth, trying to stay in fellowship with people with whom you disagree is difficult. Religious precepts always feel fundamental, so to hold those precepts loosely enough to stay in dialogue is asking a lot of people. Maybe the only way forward is baby steps like the one I experienced Monday night. When a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, arm in arm delivered a benediction in our nation’s Episcopalian “National Cathedral.”

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A Peculiar Energy

For the last few Sundays I’ve filled the pulpit for a small church that has lost its critical mass. Attendance has dwindled to a faithful few, all of whom are running out of energy. Not a happy situation. Still, when I enter the church building, I feel a sense of welcome and warmth from the folks who are keeping the place afloat.

Faith Chapel, Lucketts VALast Sunday we had visitors, an older couple, tall and friendly-faced. They arrived early to get a seat (God bless them!). They were the first ones at church, other than myself, the organist, and the person tending the coffeepot. We chatted and I discovered that they were from out of town and just passing through. Eight more people showed up for worship, bringing us to a dozen.

Because the numbers are small, I’ve been informal. Before reading the scripture and sermon, I’ve tried a “Sharing Time” to help us engage a different part of our brain before hearing the Word. On this Sunday, our theme was Treasure. “What do you treasure?”

(more…)

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1001 Worshipping Communities, “By Zombies”

If you are following the story about the missteps at the PCUSA’s 1001 Worshipping Communities, you may want to read A word of regret and hope from Linda Valentine. Linda is the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

I have no knowledge beyond what’s in the letter and I have respect for Linda Valentine. I do believe this is a learning curve for our denomination as we try to do church differently.

On a purely linguistic level, I wish the letter-writer had omitted a single sentence: “Mistakes were made.” That is just a lousy sentence. It sounds like obfuscation even if it isn’t — because it’s in passive voice. Here’s a way to tell if a sentence is in passive voice: You can add the phrase “By Zombies” at the end and it makes sense.

Not that zombies made the mistakes, of course. People did.

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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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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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Warehouse into Worship: Transforming Space

On Sunday Doug and I visited a Greek Orthodox church. We sought a change of pace and wanted to participate in a worship tradition that is sacrament-based rather than word-based.

Our local Greek Orthodox Parish meets in warehouse space in a business park. We arrived a few minutes early since it was Fall Back Sunday. I expected to see concrete floors, cement block walls, and utilitarian lighting, all of which would lend a temporary, contemporary vibe to the worship space. Perhaps some coffee-sipping band leaders would be completing their last-minute setup.

Instead, we walked into a traditional nave with icons all around and liturgical chanting already underway. The clergy wore beautiful vestments and there was a full complement of robed altar boys. The liturgy was chanted and sung by a number of voices, including a mixed choir, all without accompaniment. We sat in traditional wood pews equipped with kneelers. We followed the liturgy in bound books from a pew rack, Greek on the left hand  and English on the right. Incense filled the sanctuary.

The transformation of the warehouse space into sacred space was so successful that I was there for more than 30 minutes before it occurred to me to look around to see how they accomplished this feat. Then I studied the details.

The cement block walls had been painted a deep blue, and archways built over those walls. These archways were painted a soft yellow, and white plate rails held many large icons. Ornate hooks held oil lamps in front of the central icons. Shimmering cloths adorned the altar and lectern. Everything felt fresh and immaculate.

Check out the picture on the parish’s website. I didn’t take pictures. I wanted to be less tourist and more pilgrim.

The Orthodox call their worship the Divine Liturgy. The portion leading up to the Eucharist lasted a full hour and congregants dribbled in this entire hour. The gospel reading was from Luke 16, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. After the reading there was a pause in the liturgy. An offering was received. Then the cleric stood in the middle to deliver a sermon. It happened to be Stewardship Sunday, and this part of the service felt very familiar. In fact, I think I may have preached the same sermon: an exhortation to give Time, Talents and Treasure, all three, for all are valuable. He also made a point of welcoming the gifts of children, and used a bit of humor.

After the sermon the congregation lined up to go forward to receive the sacrament, and Doug and I ducked out. The bulletin made clear that the Eucharist was intended only for the Orthodox. If you’ve read the first chapter of my book, you may remember that I don’t like to be excluded from the sacrament!

Still, I was grateful for the chance to worship with my Orthodox sisters and brothers on this day. I especially appreciated the chance to soak in their sacred space, warehouse turned to worship.

Has any worship space surprised or delighted you recently? I’d love to hear about it. I sometimes worry that contemporary Christianity’s drift into very casual worship environments can at times starve the senses. I appreciate order and beauty.

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