Archive for 2014

Ephesians 1:3-14

Today, we have a problem with Time. Not just the lack of it, or our capacity to waste it in trivial TV watching, but in our very understanding of it. Today, we process Time in very short chunks. We abbreviate it, as we cook our food in the microwave. We truncate it, forsaking even the dumbed-down daily half-hour news show (17 minutes when you take out the commercials and feel-good fluff), for Facebook posts and Twitter-feeds. We rape Time by our reluctance to ask the big question about how history is shaped, and where it all will end. Apocalypse is not just a prelude to Zombies, it is one answer to the vital question, How will Time end?


We care so little for Time that we have stopped asking about it. Not so, the people of the Bible. John takes us back to the beginning, before the big bang, when the word was with God and was God. Later, John will take us to the end. Paul, in Ephesians 1:3-14, gives us the long-view on Time. In the beginning, God had a plan. Here and now, we experience Jesus as the mysterious manifestation of that plan. In the end, we will all share in God’s Glory as Time comes to its resting place.


Failing to yield to the awesomeness of this revelation, we have settled for a hurried and ho-hum experience of the Glory of God. I think that people like Stephen Hawking have done a good thing in giving us a glimpse into the awe that those who study time for a living experience. I may never understand black holes, but I can, and should, ponder the Lord of Time and the fact that his love for me and all frail humans, will manifest itself in Time, and at the end of Time. Paul writes:


[God has] a plan for the fullness of time, 

to gather up all things in [Christ], 

things in heaven and things on earth.

Postmodern Christians yawn when they see timelines like this
Christmas 2
1st Sunday of New Year
Luke 2:22-40

We have this image as we face the New Year of an old man being pushed off of life’s stage by an infant. Meanwhile, in the Bible, we find the baby, Jesus, being brought by his parents to the temple on the first Sunday after Christmas and there are these two old geezers blocking the way to the altar. Simeon and Anna, both older than eight track tapes, have to say their bit before we can get on with the story of the incarnation. And we say, ‘Oh I get it. Everything new gets old real quick.’ But we don’t get it. The exact opposite is being spoken by the Holy Spirit. God has intruded into our cycle of birth - innocence - rebellion - maturity - midlife - old age - and death. He has given us something eternal. What we see is not a generational division, but a timeless unity.


So when Simeon says, “Now dismiss your servant in peace,” he is not giving up. He not passing the baton to Jesus because this child represents the next generation. He is instead speaking about how this God-man is the fulfillment of the hopes of all humankind, old and young. He is thankful that he has been able to remain in the temple throughout his elder hood, because his meditation on the Torah has enabled him to bring truth to those who were seeking, no matter what their age. Now the truth that the ancients scrolls spoke hesitantly about, and the prophets only saw dimly, has become flesh and blood.


Anna also, is not notable for her great age, but for her consistent witness to the fact that spiritual things matter. If a person feels called to a religious life, they are neither a nutcase nor a saint. They are merely a person acting out on the fact that all of us should be set-apart for God. Having Anna in the temple, or an ordained person in the pulpit, doesn’t dismiss anyone from pursuing their own spiritual truth.

A candle gives out the same light when it is old as when it is new
Christmas 1
Sunday between Christmas & New Year's
Churches, like phones, look different to different generations

“Surprise! I’m not going to church right now.” Recently I gave a fellow struggling Christian author a complimentary copy of my Reality Check book for her review and asked her to pass it on to her pastor when she was though with it. She looked embarrassed and confessed that she wasn’t going to church right now. She had moved across town a few years back and not found a place that she was at home in. This is someone whose day job involved handling difficult people and doing boring repetitive things because you are responsible for getting it done. She wasn’t someone who flaked out on her commitments. She was committed to Christ. Finding a new church, however, had become a chore she didn’t feel like tackling.


There is a wonderful article at Ministry Matters comparing the declining participation in mainline denominational churches with the problem MacDonald's is having attracting millennials (the current generation of young adults, who came of age after Y2K). Many churches are in decline because are not only failing to reach this generation, but they also have very few busters (34 to 50 year olds), and only half of the boomers.


My writer friend, a boomer, was willing to accept the frailties of the church that she attended as a young adult, but having moved to a new location, she hasn’t reconnected. I offered her the name of a local church in her denomination (not mine) that I knew to be ‘high quality’ and currently free of obvious problems. These must-haves are hard to find and even harder to produce when you are responsible for fixing your own.


Later, I found myself wondering how to provide what she really needed; a reason to return to church. In her case, there was a interest group (writers), that if a church sponsored, she would attend. In my own situation, as someone who spends about a quarter of the Sundays on the road each year, having churches provide better information about their services for strangers on their websites would increase my attendance. Better yet, I wish someone would make an app that connected travelers with worship services, as Urban Spoon does for restaurants. 


I imagine that there are a variety of reasons Christians aren’t in church this Sunday. It is worth it for those in church leadership to listen to individual stories. There are many that we can’t help. But, if we train our hearts to be service oriented we might find the Holy Spirit using us.

How do we picture Christmas?

The holiday season is filled with teachable moments. As you prepare for the children’s Christmas pageant and approve various images for advertisements and to placed on the worship screen, have you exercised care to represent the diversity of the world that Emmanuel entered into? We might have a black wiseman in our nativity set, or at Easter, make mention of Simon of Cyrene’s race, but is this mere tokenism? What about wrestling with the exclusivity of our approach to the holiday season?


If the people inside your church building look different from their neighbors, the holiday season is a critical time to represent yourself as a church seeking to reconnect with its context. This requires brainstorming and blunt honesty with your leadership about the problem. 


The following carol written by Alfred Burt in 1951. As a WASP child, growing up in a white suburb, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s recording of this made an impression on me. It was for me a teachable moment:


Some children see Him lily white,

The baby Jesus born this night.

Some children see Him lily white,

With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,

The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,

With dark and heavy hair.


Some children see Him almond-eyed,

This Savior whom we kneel beside.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,

With skin of yellow hue.

Some children see Him dark as they,

Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.

Some children see him dark as they,

And, ah! they love Him, too!


The children in each different place

Will see the baby Jesus' face

Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,

And filled with holy light.

O lay aside each earthly thing

And with thy heart as offering,

Come worship now the infant King.

'Tis love that's born tonight.

additional author: 
Alfred Burt, Freedom Theater - Philadelphia
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Isaiah 40:1-11

TLC does a bit of fluff called “Say Yes to the Dress.” It shows brides arguing with their mothers as they choose a dress for her to wear for three hours on one day and costs — well, if you have to ask the price you’re not really putting yourself into their demographic. It’s Queen for the Day, remade for today’s cable channel surfer, minus the backstory of how miserable the woman’s life was before this moment and how much she needs to feel special for an hour. My hatred of Say Yes…  may be why Isaiah 62:10 popped out a me this week. The bridal dress is cultural shorthand for the way certain transitional moments can be riveting. The bride focuses on buying the right dress, because when she wears it next, her life will take a radical turn into the unknown. Isaiah describes the salvation we receive from the coming messiah:


I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.


We have a hard time reading this without wincing at the cost of a modern wedding. Perhaps we have forgotten the backstory of the second half of Isaiah. People are in exile. They are facing cultural extinction in Babylon. They have no hope. They grieve as their children leave the faith and stop practicing the rituals and morality that underpins Jewish life. When suddenly, there comes a message of salvation:


Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… A voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (40:1-3)


These people in their poverty have been given the opportunity to pick out an expensive bridal dress and wear it before God and experience the transforming power of his salvation. For them, the miracle of being able to cross the desert and return home is like a wedding. It is costly, sure to create family turmoil, and filled with all the uncertainty major change brings, but it is also pure joy. 


We can marvel at how this older generation of Israel, living in Babylon before Zillow or GPS, said yes to the dress of God’s salvation. It involved great hardship for them, but they accepted it with joy. 


So, there are two lessons to be learned. The first is that modern materialism and the accompanying unwillingness to hear the stories of those in poverty, often gives us amnesia about the deep significance of our richest symbols, such as, the special dress, a golden ring, a meal of reconciliation (fatted calf), etc. Second, is that salvation is at hand and we may be saying No.

We dress in special ways in order to see ourselves differently
Advent 3
Simony - the word for today

The recent brouhaha over President Obama appointing a soap opera producer as ambassador to Hungary reminds me of the way congregations choose their leaders. There is a word for when  nomination committees give out church offices as rewards for financial or political gifts. It’s the sin of simony, much protested by Martin Luther.  But, I wish there was a word for doing the opposite. Too often, nominating committees beg people who work 9 to 5 at finances or in the building trades, to serve on the stewardship committee or as trustees. The resulting leadership is articulate and knowledgable, but lacks passion.


I’ve always labored and prayed to build diversity into all governing committees. The membership of Trustees, Paster-Parish, Church Council, Nominations, and especially, any vision seeking group, should be chosen to represent every age and strata of the congregation. Pastors are often stumped, when after loading a lower committee with people who all think alike, every program the group develops is shot down by the more diverse council or the church at large. Diverse groups have been shown to be smarter, because they accumulate life experiences instead of narrowing their considerations to a few standard practices.


Further, the whole process of participating in church governance is supposed to be educational and useful in making disciples. Youth need to serve, and should always be a part of Trustees, Finances, and Pastor-parish, because they both teach adults to behave better and learn the practical aspects of Christianity. A church unwilling to take this risk, will soon die.

Mark 1:1-8
Psalm 85

I’ve learned a trick from Sci-Fi guru Orson Scott Card, when I’m at the bookstore, looking for a novel, I always read the first 13 lines of the book. If the author doesn’t nail it in the first half a page, the book isn’t likely to be worth it. Mark’s gospel is a good read. He begins with ordinary folk flocking out into the wilderness to hear a prophet. What would make them do that? They have a need to know that life will turn out Okay. Some of them have lost children to malnutrition. Others are struggling through failed marriages. Everyone is caught in the cross-fire between the zealot terrorists and the oppressive Roman government, with their congress of Sadducee stooges. The people need to hear a good word. We share that need with them.


We read on about Jesus because our life involves suffering. A famous painting by the 17th century Catholic artist, Salvator Rosa, shows an infant, on his mother’s lap, writing on a scroll. He writes his first words, miraculously as a babe in arms, “Conception is sinful, life is suffering, death inevitable.” This is the voice of the honest world. It reminds me of the four noble truths that the Buddha discovered, or the wisdom of Scott Peck concerning how life is painful and that mental illness rooted in avoiding that pain. We go out into wilderness, hoping to hear something different.


Psalm 85 says, “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts (v8).” 

This is the thing that needs to be nailed in the preaching this week:

+  Life is painful

+  Dishonest people will tell you it ain’t so

+  Only God can give us a real word of comfort and peace.


With this message comes a great responsibility; week by week in the year ahead, we must show the Jesus of Mark’s gospel to be the good news that is promised.

S.Rosa L'umana Fragilita 1656
Advent 2
Alexander watches as Campaspe is painted

The story is that Alexander the Great had a mistress named Campaspe. She was beautiful and he was proud of her, so proud, that he took her to the famous artist, Apelles, who painted her in the nude. Alexander loved this painting. He noticed something, though. The reason Apelles did such a good job at the painting, was because Apelles saw Campaspe’s beauty more clearly than Alexander did. Now you would think, Apelles would get in trouble for ogling  the Great’s girl. But Alexander chose instead to give Campaspe to Apelles as payment for the painting, which he took home to his palace.


Now that would be just a fun story, if it weren’t for the fact that throughout the Renaissance, this was the gold standard for how patrons were supposed to reward their artists. Here I see an analogy for the way today’s church patronizes their best preachers. People will go to church and hear a sermon, which is a painting, so to speak, of how worthy God is of our worship.


“He (or she) loves God so much better than I do.”


They will, then, take home the sermon and leave the place of God’s worship to the artist of words who paints the reproduction of the faith we are all called to have.


This, I think, is what is really wrong with the church. 

Mark 13:24-37

There are times in our lives when someone needs to shake us. We sing, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Something’s burning. We open a window and spray air freshener. The snooze button of our alarm clock has been taped down. Advent is meant to take a double edged sword to our post-turkey somnolence.  First, it reminds us of the generations who longed to see the wrath of God come and break the mountains of oppression that bound them. Then it tells us that the Jesus whom we want to receive on Christmas morning with Walmart gifts and egg nog, belongs to those who are awake, looking for him in the cold night.


One way to understand the first half of Mark 13, and particularly verse 13:30 (these things will happen to this generation), is to see Jesus warning his hearers and their children, not to get caught up in the Zealot rebellion against Rome. When they see the legions building siege ramps against the Holy City (in 70 AD.), they should wake up, and flee to the mountains. I hold to the theory of periodic apocalypse. Every so often, the Book of Revelations becomes real and personal to a generation. God shakes a people and says, “Wake up.”


Are there particular things we should be awake to as we begin this advent? What about climate change and the ongoing unwillingness of our leaders to enter into carbon reduction treaties? Or consider Ferguson, Missouri, and the larger problem of racial profiling. Do we smell the smoldering inequity between communities that afflicts America? Can we shop at Walmart and be unaware of the ever increasing gap between rich and poor, that is exacerbated by our failure to pay workers a living wage? To this list you should add something that is happening in your community. Who knows if you, in particular, are being called to wake up.

Meanwhile, we are driving our economy into the ground
Advent 1
People expect you to change

Have you heard this one?

Baptist: How many disgruntled members does it take for your church to change the pastor?

Methodist: Oh we don’t have to worry about that. They change themselves.


This time of year, about a quarter of the United Methodist Pastors say to themselves, I’m ready for a change this year. Unfortunately, many clergy move on to a new parish too soon. They allow the disgruntled few to drive them out of town, or they succumb to the flight part of our instinctual response to stress. Some pastors need to move this year. They have completed school or have reached the mandatory retirement age. Others are ready to move up to a place that fits with their newly acquired skills, salary expectations, and career goals. I suspect, however, that the majority of pastors asking to move, are doing so because they have encountered a problem that they cannot fix. 


The problem may be financial. It could be that the current church’s location doesn’t lend itself to advancement of the clergy spouse’s career. Today, many clergy spouses are their family’s primary bread earner. With a two percent per year decline in attendance, the average congregation can’t provide regular raises for their pastor. Sometimes a church will cut staff to prop up their senior pastor’s salary, only to burn him or her out as they work to fill vacancies.


Differences in long-term vision and leadership expectations may also prompt a clergy person to bid farewell to their current church. They may feel that they have been pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again after every church council meeting. I think that it is healthy for both clergy and congregation to take time prayerfully discerning their calling from God. When this vocation diverges, each party needs to be honest in owning their own vision.


Most clergy site personal growth as a primary reason for wanting to move. I am skeptical, but I have learned the wisdom of going with what people say is their motivation. If we plan to become more effective clergy by moving on, then we need to rethink our calling. How is God helping us to gain wisdom from the problems we encountered in our current situation? Instead of fixing blame, we need to find new learning. How will our leadership role be different in the future? How will I become a different person? What spiritual changes am I undergoing?


Without rethinking, we set ourselves up for the same burn-out cycle. We remain vulnerable to the same kinds of manipulative people. The triangle of our home-life, church, and personal baggage, becomes conflicted. It is helpful to review or become acquainted with Family Systems Theory (google Murray Bowen). We need to prioritize and honor Sabbath, and other spiritual disciplines, before, during, and after the transition. We need to renounce the codependence that causes us to work ever harder, instead of living a life that balances God, family, and our career.

United Methodist Church
Matthew 25:14-30

Imagine Henry, a Easter-Christmas nominal Christian, coming to your church this week and hearing Jesus’ story about how on Judgement Day, God will sort us all out, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. Henry has never spent a day upon a farm. He wonders what is so bad about goats. He gets the bit about how people, who are only nice when they know that there’s something in it for them, deserve Hell. But, what’s this talk about all of humankind being brought before God (Jesus) and given only one chance to make it into heaven? Henry, like Hamlet and many other fictional people, views his life as a series of good and bad decisions. We assume that we get into heaven if we happen to be doing something good when we die; like Hamlet’s stepfather saying his prayers. I think that this week’s sermon should answer Henry’s questions, instead of going over the familiar ground of being good when nobody is watching.


First, we have to say that goats are really fine animals. Jesus’ point is not that sheep are warm and fuzzy and therefor saved. He is referring to the fact that shepherds can do this separation very easily. God will not take long to sort us. The direction of our hearts, is an open book to Jesus who lives within us.


Second, we all experience our lives as a series of ups and downs. We all do things that we are ashamed of, even though our hearts are in the right place. A friend of mine once said, “I used to worry that Jesus would come on a night when I was smoking pot with my buddies.” He later became a staunch Calvinist to escape the theological muddiness of his Wesleyan parents. 


Our emphasis, needs to be on the transforming power of God’s grace. People who know Jesus, don’t live perfect lives. They know perfect love. They live out of a deep thanksgiving. That inner peace overflows in dozens of daily bits of kindness. These acts often go unnoticed. Jesus knows his own from a distance, like a shepherd sorting sheep from goats, because they have his heart.

Be careful not to imply that some people or nations are goat-like
Pentecost 29
Is your church experiencing conflict?

Many churches are in conflict today. Often these fights have become abusive, traumatising parish leaders. I can give at least three reasons for why the American church scene has become so rancorous:

1) The steady decline in American church participation has caused us to feel depressed in our church work. Depressed people are risk adverse, passive aggressive, and argumentative.

2) The constant emphasis on church growth and how laity are keeping their pastors from being successful, has made us all feel ashamed. Shame-based cultures shuffle blame around rather than dealing problems in an objective fashion.

3) The world is such a complex place now that people come to church to find a sabbath rest and help in forming meaningful relationships with God and their loved ones. Instead of giving them what they crave, we give them complications.

There may be other causes. Confronting the above, however, orients us in the right direction. We, church leaders, have to forsake blaming and shaming. In each conflict, we must prayerfully seek to understand the motives of others and not fall into the trap of black-white thinking. This may take time and be a slow process. Once we understand why people behave the way they do, then we can respond without judgement or competitiveness. Once we see ourselves as having similar needs and frustrations, then we can be open to offer and recieve healing and forgiveness. 

For more on this see David's Harp by Bill Kemp  for sale at

Judges 4

You have to have three items handy before you tell the story of Deborah; a glass of milk, a tent peg (a sharpened stick will do), and the biggest sledge hammer you can find. Unfortunately, the Lectionary ends the story of Deborah at Judges 4:7. You need to tell the whole story, all of Judges 4. I think it’s fun just to read it — ham it up, if can — let people draw their own interpretations. Many will say, “Surely, that’s not in the Bible!” Then you can give one, or more, of the following reasons why the story of Deborah and Jael is important to remember.


  1. This story takes place over three thousand years ago. Deborah is a judge. She is so respected for her wisdom and capacity to discern the truth, that people from all over come to submit their cases for her arbitration. One can ask the question why women still get paid 75 cents on the dollar and bump up against the glass ceiling today.
  2. There is a second woman that is honored in this story along with Deborah. Her name is Jael, the wife of Heber. Her name means mountain goat in Hebrew. We don’t know where her husband is when the commander of the enemy shows up at her tent in full armor and a fat sword at his side. He asks her for a glass of water and she gives him some warm milk. He asks for a place to hide and she gives him a warm blanket to sleep under. Then she takes a sledgehammer and drives a tent peg through his temple. 

    The explanation for this behavior is, she does what needs to be done. Throughout the fourth chapter, men keep forgetting what’s important. The women focus on discerning God’s will, showing up for battle, and following through all of their might. 

3)  Both of the men named in this chapter, prove to be cowards. Barak doubts that God will go with him. He has 10,000 troops, but he wants Deborah to leave her post and be his lucky charm in battle. Many of us, men and women, have this tendency to leave our religion to the professionals. We don’t pray in public, we bring the pastor over to pray. We don’t trust what God is speaking in our own hearts, we wait for someone else to take charge.

4) Sisera is more of a traditional coward. He runs from the battle. He hides in Jael’s tent. He asks her to lie for him. He wants to save his life, but ends up losing it. This ties in well with Jesus’ words about gaining the whole world and losing our soul. When we act in cowardly ways in our lives, we often think we are saving ourselves. What we lose, may not be life threatening, but more valuable. Things like self-respect, friendships, and life-time achievement of what we were meant to do, are sacrificed when we behave dishonorably.

Don't shy away from graphically telling this story
Pentecost 22
Having a 1 in a million pastor is random reinforcement

This week in Illinois, I had a lay person complain to me about his church. The church had been one of those success stories. A small congregation in the 1980s, receives a dynamic and gifted pastor who stays for over 20 years. In that time, the church grew. It became a large church with staff. When that pastor left, however, a rapid decline set in. They went through a series of pastors and now they are a small congregation again. “Wow,” I said. “I have just heard the same story from a church in Pennsylvania.”


In both churches, there are a number of people bent on getting rid of the current pastor. They are convinced that all they need is the “right” pastor. Psychologists call this random reinforcement. The shame of the above situations is that the current pastors are gifted for small church ministry and want to stay. 


I have three points to make:


  1. Whenever there has been a long term pastor, especially one that transforms the church, there is a need for an intentional interim clergy. Unless some one comes in who doesn’t plan to stay, but instead helps the church adapt to the fact that the next pastor will be different, there will be a succession of short term unsuccessful ministries.
  2. Vision needs to be developed by and fully owned by the laity. The local leadership has to see what they are doing as separate from whatever gifts the current pastor has brought to them.
  3. If the vision that the current congregation prayerfully discerns is modest, then God wants them to be a really good small church. They need to find ways to adjust their budget downward. Cut staff, go to volunteer workers, rent out portions of their building. Ministry must always be appropriate to church size. 
Mathew 25

If you are hearing Matthew 25 or preaching it in church this month, there are some things you ought to keep in mind. First, the context of the three parables that Jesus tells, is that of his final week on earth. Like final lecture of the late CMU professor, Randy Pausch, Jesus’ last stories have special significance. Usually, we say that these three stories are Eschatological, that is, they deal with the final judgement of humanity and the second coming of Christ. But, I think that it is worth digging deeper.


The three stories also have a common theme. In each, there is a plain distinction between good people and bad. In each story, the right thing to do, isn’t the obvious thing to do. In the story of the 10 Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13), the good people are rewarded for staying awake and preparing for the unexpected appearance of God in their lives. In the story of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-28), the good person invests him or herself fully in life, risks everything to use what God has given them. The bad one, buries their resources and gifts in a snot rag. The story of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:29-46), similarly, talks of good people being compassionate to everyone. Bad people take the more prudent course of only doing good when they know the recipient can return the favor in some way. 


In each of these stories, the distinction between good and evil is made easily by the master (God).  Jesus always seems surprise at how hard we find it separate the two. We, and the people we know, are full of gray areas and complications. Yet, three crystal clear questions emerge:

  1. Are you spiritually awake?  Yes or No (don’t say maybe)
  2. Are you willing to risk everything in order to do the one thing God has called (or made) you to do?
  3. Do you live compassionately in this world, disregarding any payback or reward for being nice?


If you can answer each question with a resounding YES! Then you pass Jesus’ final exam.

What would you say if it was your last lecture?
Pentecost 27
Are you marketing to college-age adults?

About once a year, I attend the contemporary worship service at a church adjacent to the University of New Mexico. I like this church and enjoy the informal, but well organized, youth-oriented service. The praise band is lively, but punctual. The pastor knows how to give an appropriate message for that setting. The church has invested heavily in lighting and sound, so that the fellowship hall is ideal for contemporary worship. But, where are the college kids? I didn’t see any.


I contrast this to the service that I once attended in College Station, Texas. Here, everything was less than optimal. The gymnasium-like space, in particular sticks in my mind as being uncomfortable to worship in. This may have been due to the fact that the space and the stage were packed with college students.


You may be thinking that I am going to show an inverse relationship between perfectionism and the appeal of a worship service to college students. Perfectionism is bad for the health of any congregation. I haven’t seen any studies relating it to the worship preferences of college students, though.


What’s at play here, is the core vision of each congregation. The church near the University of New Mexico, is what I call a Diamond Church. They take pride in being the best church in the region. Every decision they make, hones in on the question, “What is it that will cause people to drive by other churches and come to ours.” They demand quality from their paid staff and program leaders. They don’t do anything, unless they can do it well.


In College Station, at least a portion of the parish has been set aside to pursue a different core vision. This sub-congregation is oriented entirely towards reaching the next generation. They have abandoned all expectations, except those related to evangelizing 18 to 30 year olds. Perfectionism doesn’t stick to this mindset. They are a church that is clubbing away at post-modern culture (what I call a Club Church).


In  Reality Check 101, I talk about the four exits off the round-about. Every congregation must discern its core vision. They must choose their path. Diamond Churches may have a well attended contemporary worship service, but the demographics of that service is likely to be older. Club Churches may have to become a sub-congregation within a more traditional and wealthier parish. It takes courage to walk the path that aligns with your core vision. 

College Ministry
Matthew 5:1-12

In the past, I have emphasized the all in All Saints Day. Not this year. There isn’t an ‘all’ in Jesus’ definition of saint. In this Saturday’s holiday lection, Jesus begins his sermon on the mount with a series of blessings (Matthew 5:1-12). Each of these Beatitudes are a reversal in our definition of saint. Those with impoverished faith are sanctified. The theologically trained go unnoticed.  The meek are praised and the ambitious considered un-saintly. Mourning counts for something. The bad theology that considers our misfortunes to be punishments for being less than perfect, is thrown in the trash bin. The messy and politically unappreciated work of peacemaking is prized. In short, Jesus redefines the celebration we plan for this weekend.


This is the great surprise. Take a closer look at the narratives of people who you admire. It’s not the ones who wisely avoided trouble and paid their bills always on time, that are the saints. It is the family who has suffered the heartbreak of an early death, a childhood illness, or the loss of their home through foreclosure. They may not be articulate about their religion, but they are the real saints.


What if we were to intentionally bless the people that Jesus blesses? Our default setting (or culture) is to bless the ambitious, the financially savvy, the lucky, the young, and the beautiful. What if we call ‘saint,’ those in whom we see a purity of heart? What if we turn to those who mourn and ask them for their wisdom? What if we honor peace makers as the real heroes of our society? What if we bless and pray with those who are honest about their spiritual poverty? Then, we might begin to get what Jesus preaches about on the mountain.

Look for saints on the street
All Saints Sunday
Church Transition takes us thru wilderness

From time to time, churches go through transition. It may be a change of pastors, made more traumatic by the length of the exiting pastor’s term (more than 8 years), an over or under-functioning leadership style, or the presence of parish conflict. It may be that the church is changing locations or involved in a merger or parish realignment. It may be a transition to a different form or category of clergy leadership. These major changes require theological understanding and prayer. They are best undergirded by congregational study and a renewed emphasis upon the importance of worship and the sacraments.


I have found the book of Exodus to be a helpful study, for both the transitional leadership and the congregation. First because the name says it all. In transition, we exit one place and journey to another — we participate in a spiritual exodus. See Returning to Exodus.


Note the importance of the Sacrament of Baptism for the Exodus narrative. The little baby Moses is baptized in the Nile, passing through certain death within a protective basket that represents the church. Later, the whole congregation is baptized within the waters of the Red Sea. Even if the church doesn’t have a baptism scheduled during its transitional period, at least one worship service should be spent helping people to remember their baptism and be thankful.


The book of Exodus begins with an unfortunate change in political leadership. It is helpful, when churches undergo transition to remind people that the initiating trauma was not their fault. In transition, people tend to play the blame game. The feel ashamed for being plagued with difficulties. Change happens. Transition happens because the Holy Spirit knows we need to grow through the pain. See State of Maximum Mess.


The journey requires forty years in the wilderness. Every transition has its own time table. It can not be rushed. You will leave the wilderness when the Holy Spirit says that it is time. 


Congregational life’s most important lessons are taught during transition. The people had to be out in the wilderness before Moses was given the Ten Commandments. See Hanging Ten.


God will provide. Daily bread was given to the people as they journeyed across the wilderness. This gift ended when the people crossed over into the promised land. No one wants the trauma that causes transition. We all, however, are thankful for the daily grace that we see in the desert and nowhere else.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

The story of Moses and the great wilderness transition comes to an end on Mount Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34:1-12). Like all great stories, it is bitter-sweet. The future lays before Moses. He can look into the Promised Land, but not enter. His role has been to guide the people out of slavery and through a transitional period. I’ve always felt that those who look for some sin to be the cause of Moses not crossing the Jordan, miss the point. Most of the world’s greatest leaders were given boundaries. Winston Churchill led Britain through World War II, and then was promptly voted out of office. Alan Turing conceived the logic behind the modern computer, and then was discredited, ostracized, and driven to suicide, least he enter the digital age. An ungrateful military complex revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance after he had midwifed us into the atomic age.


The most memorable example, however, is Dr. Martin Luther King. He referred to the end of Moses’ leadership on Mount Pisgah, when he said:


…it really doesn't matter to with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  (Martin Luther King’s last speech at Memphis, Tenn. April 3, 1968)


Moses doesn’t enter the promised land. That doesn’t make him a failure or mean that he was being punished. The lesson is; many of us will have tasks where we participate in or lead in a difficult journey, but are locked out of the destination. We do our best work, when we accept this Moses-like role. In fact, great evil has been done in this world by people who insisted on the being both transitional guides and promised land politicians. It’s OK to die in the wilderness. Dr King says, “I’m not worried about anything.” That requires faith.

The vehicle that gets us across the desert is deserted at Mt Pisgah
Last Sunday in Pentecost
Your churches economic culture effects its temporal focus

On two occasions, I have pastored congregations whose people and leadership had less expendable income than the average resident of the the state. I noticed that when I went to meetings, I was the only person with a calendar. It was part of the culture of both of these congregations, to focus only on the present. I had a hard to time drumming up interest in planning programs that occurred in the future. A Zen master might praise these people for being mindful and living in the moment. Imagine how frustrating I found it.


On another occasion, I served a church where the average member had more disposable income than the residents of the immediate neighborhood. Here my board members dutifully brought their calendars to meetings. But, the conversation around the table was littered with talk of things past. There were many sacred cows that could not be moved because they were given in memory of someone long dead. 


The other congregations that I served, were closer to the economic mean. They had middle class values which included a tendency to focus too much on the future. They never rested to simply enjoy the moment. They never looked back to previous generations for wisdom.


The “Circles out of Poverty” program has a significant piece dealing with the value people place the past, present, and future. People who have been raised in poverty, tend to focus on the present. Those who are relatively well off, focus on the past. Middle class people value the future above the present and the past. This is a rough, but helpful, generalization. The generationally poor, need to plan more for the future. Those who are wealthy, need to let go of the past. We in the middle, need to realize that our mental focus on the future is only appropriate about a third of the time. 


Church leadership often involves challenging the temporal focus of your people. if they are past oriented, try to help them understand how wealth colors their world view. If they are future oriented, help them to see that their middle class values might be acting as a set of blinders, preventing them from seeing the full breadth of human history. If they are struggling along, one day at a time, help them to realize that an exclusively present-oriented world view  is one of the things that entraps them in the downward spiral of poverty.

Circles Out of Poverty
Deuteronomy 8:7-17

The Lord God led the people for forty years in the wilderness in order to bring them to the only land in the Middle East that doesn’t have oil. Still, it was a pretty good Promised Land. It had pomegranates and figs. It had copper and affordable housing. But, what Deuteronomy 8:7-17 fails to mention is the location. They say that the three most important assets of any piece of real-estate are location, location, and, Location. Palestine had that in spades.


God set his beloved people up at the cross-road of the ancient world. A prime location. They weren’t given a quiet cul-de-sac. Medieval mapmakers called Jerusalem the navel of the world. There is a certain responsibility that comes from being in the center of things. The role of the hub is to keep the wheel intact. Even today, many of us wish that Israel would move from it’s current snapping turtle-like, defensive posture, to a more collaborative role in the politics of the region. Would the Arab Spring have gone better, if Israel had played a more supportive role in aiding the new democracies? 


God makes only one request, that people remember the Lord God when they settle in the new land. It seems to be human nature, that when we are successful, we say, “I did this all myself.” Like ancient Israel, America has been given a good land. We can sing, O beautiful for spacious skies…  Every line reminds us of the natural resources God has given us. Further, for over a century, we have held the prime location in global commerce. In our success, we have repeated ancient Israel’s mistake of forgetting God. We say, “we have all these things because we work hard.”


Next time you feel like a self-made person, remember all the gifts God gave you along the way. Consider the pomegranate. The fruit symbolizes the gift we are meant to be for others. Some of our resources come filled with seeds. God wants us to sit at the cross roads of our community and share the seeds of hope and love. With a prime location comes great responsibility.

Even the desert blooms - Trust God's wisdom
Pentecost 24
Homer Simpson is your typical church snacker

Every church deals with four kinds of people: Faithful, Snackers, Near, and Far. To be successful, you need to tailor your evangelism and mission to meet the needs of each group. You also need to be brutally honest about your programing and budget. It’s very easy for the Faithful to consume all of the resources to the exclusion of the other three people groups.

The four groups are:

    •    The Faithful - people within the church that know their need of continuous
nourishment in Christian Truth and want to provide the same spiritual food for their children. Too often, the cry of this group is “feed me.” You must help these people shift their focus outward. 

    •    The Snackers – people living near the church that participate erratically.  Thy are often unaware or uncommitted regarding spiritual matters. They occasionally stop by to see what your church is offering. 

    •    The Near – people who live near your church but are yet unaware of how life transforming church can be. They are the lost that Jesus calls us to save (Luke 15). 

    •    The Far – those who live far from the church, but are connected and fed through mission and denominational ties.

Successful churches have a magnetic quality. The Near are always being invited to Snack, Snackers in time become faithful, and the Faithful learn to express their discipleship by reaching out in hospitality to the Near and in generosity to the Far. They count hungry people everywhere as their asset, because the church’s mission is to feed the hungry.

Exodus 32:1-14

A Crosby, Stills, and Nash song used to advise that when you’re down and confused because the one that you belong to with is far away, you ought to just, “Love the one you’re with.” In Exodus (32:1-14), God’s people get discombobulated because Moses is up the mountain and God seems far away.  There are times in our lives when we find our primary relationships thinned out and fuzzy. It may be that our spouse is traveling or working a different shift. Face time disappears. Every word between us is miscommunicated. In these situations, there is always someone who says, “If you can’t be with the one you love…” What follows may be an affair, a prodigal use of credit cards, or a spiteful revenge act. Exodus shows us both the danger inherent and the grace available for those traveling through this wilderness.


There are two parts to this story. The first is the making of convenient gods. Aaron says, “the people you love, will always leave you.” Pastor Moses gets called to another church. The God that he was an ambassador for, begins to feel very distant. It is always better to have a god at hand. One should choose ones religion, a la carte. It’s easier that way. Less rules, less stress. The same is true of relationships like marriage and child rearing. It’s only understandable that concentration slips away, because your baby is so far away.


I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I call, primary relationships. Our relationship with God is one. Other primary relationships include our parents, spouse, siblings, and those we enter into a covenantal relationship with. These are the cables that anchor our lives. We dare not cut our moorings and try to love the one we’re with.


The second half of the story involves God playing the devil’s advocate. He models back the behavior of the Israelites, as they attempt to make gods out of gold. God says to Moses, “I’ll love you alone, and not my people, because I’m near to you. My primary relationship with the people feels confused and distant, right now.” Moses has to play along, by arguing with that others would notice that God was being unfaithful. This dialogue underscores this concept of being faithful to our God and to our primary relationships.

Steven Stills sings, "Love the one you're with."
Pentecost 23
A small tool box limits your ability to see solutions

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Denominational officials have a very limited tool box. They can credential new clergy and defrock inept ones. They can move pastors from place to place (or make suggestions if it is “call” system). They can keep both the congregation and clergy persons informed about policies and best practices. Given this tool box, every church problem looks like a leadership issue. The nail that fits the denominational official’s hammer is a church that will do better, if only they have the right pastor. But, what if governance of the congregation is dominated by a group of dysfunctional lay leaders? What if, a congregation needs to change its DNA or systemic culture? What if they need rebirth at the grass roots?


I was with a mix group of trained intentional interim clergy this past weekend. A common complaint from everyone, whether they be Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Methodist, was that the denominational leadership above them failed to appreciate that every local church is a family system. Dysfunctional church systems can’t be fixed by changing the pastor any more than an alcoholic family fixed by swapping out one parent.


So the moral is, district superintendents, bishops, and synod officials, must learn to think outside the box—their leadership oriented tool box, that is.

additional author: 
Lake Erie Regional Interim Ministry Association
Exodus 20:1-17

I have a solution to the controversy about displaying the Ten Commandment in public places, particularly courthouses. Put up only the second tablet. Traditionally the Ten Commandment (Exodus 20:1-17) have been divided, with commandment one through four on the left (or right if you are speaking Hebrew). These are the “crimes against the Lord God.” In a pluralistic society, such as ours, we have no right to expect everyone to call the same god, Holy. The second tablet of commandments deal with our crimes against each other. These six seem appropriate for the walls of our courthouses, as well as, the schools were we teach our children about civic responsibility. At first glance, the second tablet looks universal and appropriate for a diverse society such as ours.. 


Commandments numbered one through three, are prefaced with the words, “I am the God who has liberated you from your slavery.” This is the relational hook. Each of us has a liberation story. Many non-Christians also have a ‘higher power” that they owe a debt to. The first commandments warns us against choosing our religion a’ la carte. We have a holy obligation. God has a right to be jealous. The second commandment urges us to not make an idol of any thing or ideology that might re-enslave us. The third follows, not by dealing with swearing, but the more common problem of magical behavior and superstitious thinking. We are not to try to manipulate the Holy by repetitive acts or mumbo jumbo liturgy.


The remaining commandments relate to things our conscience already nags us about. Hanging commandments five through nine in the courthouse is a nod to how much Judeo-Christian tradition undergirds American morality. We may not always act like the these commandments exist, but at least they give us the language to talk about our bad behavior.


One has to watch out, though, for commandments number four and ten. Our American society has made an idol out of work addiction. The sabbath proposed in commandment four is for our own good. I am concerned by how multi-tasking and social media smother spiritual development. Once a week, we should sabbath from multi-tasking and Facebook. 


The last commandment, the one about coveting, is radically un-American. I think it is Jesus’ favorite commandment. Grasping the danger of consumerism can transform your life. What would happen if we each tried to live without coveting? Who would buy all the cars and lottery tickets? Madison Avenue would go bust.

The Ten commandments should be divided 4 and 6
Pentecost 22
Exodus 17:1-7
Matthew 21:23-32

I warned our dog, Bella, that she’d be in the blog this week. She didn’t care. She prefers to be stubborn. The current problem involves antibiotic pills that I am hiding in her doggie treats. I say, “Trust me.” She doesn’t. She eats the treat and spits out the pill. We argue. She growls, “Who made you an authority over me?” It’s the same place Moses was in as he led people across the wilderness. People were grumbling because Moses picked camping sites without regard to water.


 “We’re thirsty,” people said.   


“This is where God said we should camp,” Moses replied.


“Who made you boss?”




Am I wrong to see the people acting like my dog, and myself, as her Moses?


I was hoping that what Jesus said in Matthew 21:23-32 would clarify things. This is where Jesus gets asked who put him in charge of bringing spiritual healing to the people. Jesus, like Moses, is leading people across a transitional wilderness. They have left the Old Testament world where they were the independent, theocratic, nation of Israel. Now they must learn to be both compassionate and religiously distinct in the pluralistic Roman world. Not too different from Christians in a Postmodern world. The people want to go back to easer times. They want their leaders to be more like Pharaoh or a previous pastor. They want authorities who give them treats and provide abundant water, without ever inserting medicine or asking them to walk across a dessert.


Jesus points to  John the Baptist. This is the type of authority God is providing for you now. He will take you out into the wilderness and teach you to camp in strange places. You won’t always have what you need. You’ll be thirsty. You’ll be baptized with sorrow. It will take faith to trust in God and this new type of leadership. It is a bitter pill to swallow. Moses was known for his humility. Wilderness leaders lack dogmatism. They don’t provide easy answers. They don’t put you up at the Holliday Inn.

Bella the church dog, loves comfortable dogma
Pentecost 21
This sub is a museum piece

In San Diego there’s a boat museum with three old submarines tied to the dock. I was visiting the Russian Whisky Class submarine from the 1970s, when I noticed a beautiful sailboat tacking against the wind in the harbor. What’s the difference between these two boats? The sailboat is dealing with wind and current. It is taking risks. The Russian sub is securely fastened to the shore. It is a museum piece. I find that when I talk about the church in the postmodern world, the image of the sailboat resonates with only a few church leaders. Most pastors and lay people would prefer to have their house of worship firmly entrenched in tradition. There isn’t sufficient evangelical passion to send them out into open water.


Since the 1980s, the religious undercurrent of American life has turned against weekly worship. This past week, less than 18% of the population was in worship. Further, there is a stiff wind blowing against all forms of institutionalism and hierarchy. People have embraced the the old Marx brothers’ joke, I wouldn’t want to be a member of any organization that would have me. The gentle, Newtonian, wave theory that supported our traditional church boat is gone. In its place, relativism rules. People go to their social networks with their problems, instead of their pastor. A generation has arisen that does not know organized religion.


We can respond to the postmodern world by allowing our churches to become museum pieces. The old submarines in San Diego don’t have to deal with the wind and the waves. They don’t care which way society is going. They say, “Relativism is just wrong.” 


If you learn to sail, you discover some interesting facts. A modern, sloop rigged, sailboat can sail very close to the wind. In fact, it sails fastest when the wind is against it. A modern sailboat can also survive a terrible storm, as long as it keeps its bow into the wind. There are very few places in this world, that a thirty-foot sailboat can’t reach. It does well on the margins, away from the shipping lines crowded with big institutional boats. Where has Jesus called us to take the gospel?


I’m not campaigning to buy a boat. I’m simply pointing out that the reason so few church leaders embrace postmodern ministry is because they have the wrong image of the church in their heads. Jesus commanded his disciples to sail on a night that the wind and the waves would be against them. When they became afraid, he came to where they were, in the midst of the ever changing sea of contemporary society.

Exodus 16:2-15

I have a special “Macro” lens for my camera. It’s job is to selectively focus on little things. If I want to get a broad picture of the landscape, I need to switch lenses. We all suffer from selective memory. Even when we talk about our day over dinner, we selectively focus on the things most likely to make us feel that we deserve that second desert. Most of the arguments that we have with our loved ones, involve a heavy dose of selective memory. So too, the conflicts that arise in church.


As the people travel their transition through the dessert in Exodus 16, they remember certain things about Egypt. There was plenty of water. They had fleshpots. They had bread to sop up the gravy. They had cucumbers and garlic. 


Moses says, “You had Pharaoh throwing your kids into the river!”


We need a wide angle lens to understand why God brings transition and wilderness into our lives.  When we were in Egypt, we mourned for our murdered children. We were slaves. When we left Egypt, we feared for our lives. Then the mighty hand of God parted the Red Sea and set us free. Now we are in the wilderness. We selectively remember Egypt. We don’t have a broad enough perspective to see the great love of God.


God says, “Lift up your eyes and see that I am providing bread for you in the wilderness.”

The grasshopper's compound eyes enable him to see all around him
Pentecost 20
Bill's RC Workshops available

Bill Kemp is available to do a Reality Check 101 workshop in your church.  Reality Check is designed to help churches discover their mission and thrive through transition. If your congregation is experiencing decline and desires a turnaround, try Reality Check. If you are going through transition or finding that your sense of mission is fuzzy, try Reality Check. Bill Kemp's Reality Check is a toolbox of laity oriented material. You can tailor it to your church. And yes, it is appropriate for churches that are going through a change in pastors.

Typically, there are three workshops and the option of having Bill Kemp preach durning worship. Bill is also available to do one on one interviews with church leaders. After the event, he will provide your church board with a summary and a set of recommendations. Books and reproducible materials are also provided. 

The workshops are:

I. The Three Questions - This talk deals with lowering congregational anxiety, coming to grips with current reality, and redesigning the church so that it becomes what Christ had in mind.

II. Getting off of the Roundabout: Discovering the calling your church has from God


III. Making Better Decisions and/or Thriving Through Transition


Reality Check 101 in three words:

  • Accept - We can’t go on this way
  • Trust - That God will provide a way to get from where we are to where we need to be.
  • Love - The future church includes new people

Standard cost for the workshop is only $500 / day plus travel costs. Discounts available for churches within driving distance of Pittsburgh. 

         Bill’s powerpoint presentations, sermons, and handouts, can be viewed at:

Contact Bill Kemp: or 412-956-2565

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:13-17

Out in the dessert, Moses lifts up a cross-shaped stick. This is the moment of maximum anxiety. The people have reached the end of their own resources. They are lost. They are sick. The are, what Jesus would later call, the poor in faith. They are entering a 12 Step program for irreligious people — which begins with admitting that we are powerless to save ourselves. On the stick is a brazen snake. This drains the last bit of rationality and ‘this is how we do things’ out of the situation. Imagine going down the aisle of your church with a snake on a stick. 


The people just have to look at the snake pole to be healed. This is a pretty good analogy to the free nature of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. That’s why the story of Moses and the snake-stick precedes our favorite verse, John 3:16. 


This is a good time to speak about those moments in our lives when we are overcome by anxiety. My next blog (September 11, 2014) will speak about the difference between anxiety and urgency. Anxiety rarely leads people to do the right thing. The reason that 12 Step programs are so effective, is because they walk the addict back to the moment when they are most anxious (that is, most aware of what they are in danger of losing) and offer grace. There is a free gift. The solution comes down to us from a higher power.


This Sunday, in the shadow of 911, we lift high the cross.

Did we respond to 911 out of Anxiety or Urgency & Grace?
Holy Cross Sunday
I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees

Dr Seuss wrote a book about a voice. An evil industrialist is chopping down all the truffula trees and making them into thneeds. The Lorax comes saying, “I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.” This line gets repeated, but no one is listening. Soon, the trees are all gone, except for one seed. The book is not simply an environmental parable. It is also an account of the occasional, Lorax-like individual, who speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves.


We need to cultivate the Lorax prophets in our church. They speak for those not present at the church council meeting. They speak for the unchurched people who live nearby. They speak for the homeless, the shut-in, and the illegal immigrant. They speak for many others that can not be named because we haven’t heard the Lorax.


I find myself thinking of the way Jesus began his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:3-13).

I am the Lorax, representing the Kingdom of God, and I speak for:

the poor - for it is all belongs to them

those that mourn - that the church might hear and comfort them

the meek - for they are defined by their lack of voice

those that hunger for fairness - for in many have given up on the system

the merciful - for we only receive mercy by speaking it

for the pure in heart - for Devil knows everyone else’s price

for the peacemakers - for cost of hatred is too great

for all those who are persecuted, insulted, and shut out of our conversations 

  - for they are the salt of the earth

I am the Lorax, I speak for them 

Exodus 12:1-14

It’s ritual. I hate ritual. I’m tempted to pass over the description of the Passover ritual in Exodus twelve. Repetitious religious acts are often used to reinforce institutional authority and corral us into compliance. Yet, what God commands Moses in Passover, and what we continue with frequent communion, is meant to free us for rebellion. Passover is like the church meetings held before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. When we remember, we remember that once we were slaves and now we are free.


The ritual begins with a sacrificial lamb. The Passover story really begins with innocent children being thrown into the Nile. We tell again how little baby Moses rode along in the wicker basket of God’s grace until the time was right for him to stand before Pharaoh’s court. We speak of people like Rosa Parks. We tell how a young minister, new to the Montgomery area, was called out to lead his people. We recall how Martin Luther King was slaughtered like an unblemished lamb.


As Christians, the blood of every contemporary sacrificial lamb, points us back to the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross. We take a brush and dip it into the blood. We mark our doorways and make a red, red, arch for us to pass under. We do the ritual in our homes. Remembering that if we courageously act for the transformation of our community, the judgement of God’s angel of death, will pass over us. We look for protection in our ritual, our communion service, so that we might have the strength to act for freedom in the coming day.


The ritual isn’t done at church, or within the walls of the institution. People gather for passover in their own homes. Fathers and mothers, without theological training, stumble through the litany of what happened and how it is relevant to us. This is where religion gets dangerous. When ordinary folk say, “God took me with a mighty hand. God led me to walk the walk of freedom.”


What does it mean for the people of your community to eat communion with their loins girded and their sandals on? What are the the structures of oppression that your people need to stand up to? How can this passover transform your neighborhood?

Martin Luther King Jr. outlines boycott strategies at a church meeting
Pentecost 18
Small Churches are like crop dusting planes

Every good, or should I say, surviving pilot watches their altimeter. The very definition of flying involves being above the ground, and the very definition of being a church involves having a number of people in the pew. In an airplane, the number of feet above sea level is a statistic, a number which we are glad someone is watching. In the church, the number of people actively in worship, is also an important statistic. Some airplanes have a smaller gauge beside the altimeter labeled “rate of climb” (it also measures how fast you are falling). Churches, especially small churches, need to be aware of how quickly they are gaining or losing worshipers.


But, what is important is not just absolute altitude, but the altitude relative to the terrain. 10,000 feet seems like a safe cruising height, unless you are flying over the Andes. How many people are enough people? Well that depends upon where you are being a church. Every church has a context and that context determines the number of people who are needed to be in worship in order for that church to fly. 


If that church is ministering in the context of a growing suburb with rising home values, then that number is likely to be quite high. Why? The people of that upwardly mobile setting will tend to place a high value on quality music, ministerial credentials, as well as, upon the church’s appearance. When the choir is a few struggling voices, and the preacher looks homespun, and the building lacks functioning air-conditioning, these same neighbors people who by-pass the dollar store, will by-pass the church. 


Not every congregation is located in an upwardly mobile suburban context. Some are in rural contexts that high altitude churches can’t fly. A congregation in a prison or nursing home only needs two or three worshipers. Ultra small churches are like crop dusting planes. They are used to low altitudes and small worship attendances. Worship statistics always need to be viewed in context.


This is a good time to explain the name of God. It’s a pun. God will be who he will be. Like particles in quantum physics, he will appear as necessary, according to his own mysterious laws, in the midst of the situation. On the flip side of the pun, he has always been the unchanging one. This is a good time to say nothing. I follow the Hebrew convention of not uttering the name.  


If we speak of anything, we should point out how God’s name criticizes conservatives and liberals equally. In fact, we should share how Exodus 3:14 speaks against our own cherished belief system. 


If we are liberal, we should admit that our God is a jealous god. He brings his people out into the wilderness to purify them. He gives them ten commandments, the first of which forbids them from choosing their religious beliefs ale carte. No matter how modern we get, we can never forget that we deal with a particular Holy One, who calls us to be holy. Situation Ethics is a slippery downward slope. The one with whom we have to deal, does not change.


If we are conservative, we should admit that our God is always about becoming what the next generation needs. The God of Exodus allows the traditionally minded elders die in the wilderness. Miriam takes up a tambourine and dances to contemporary Christian music. I suspect that Joshua and Caleb used powerpoint to tell about their mission trip to spy out the promised land. Too often, church leaders lack the courage to follow the mysterious one who is our God, out of their enslavement to the past.

Moses before the burning bush
How do you design a better bomber, or a better church?

In WWII, allied airplane manufacturers used to send their design engineers to the runways to examine the wounded planes which limped back after action. Often a bomber would have a gapping hole in its wing or fuselage or even an entire section of its tail missing. The engineers would carefully note where each of these damages were, and then go back and design reinforcements for future aircraft. This is similar to the process that good church leaders use when evaluating programs and designing the church for change.


The counterintuitive trick, though, was that they did not reinforce where they had seen damage, but rather where the planes were untouched. The logic was that the all the planes they looked at were survivors, who in spite of their extensive damage, made it back because they had not been hit in a vital spot. One can assume that the planes that didn’t make it back were hit in other places. Those other places are what need reinforcement. By reinforcing where the surviving planes were untouched, the designers were taking into account the silent witness of those planes which didn’t make it back because they were mortally wounded. So the counter-intuitive rule was, “fix what you don’t see broken, because what you do see broken isn’t vital.


Innovative church leaders are always trying to fix what isn’t broken.


This past week, I heard a pastor invite his 8:15 congregation to stay after worship and give feedback on the service. The church leadership was trying to decide what needed done with this time-slot. The problem was, they were seeking input from those who already utilized the service. If they want to save new souls, they need to ask those who don’t attend. The people who are choose this service like its time, music, and casual feel. If they have any complaints, it will be about things that don’t prevent others from coming. Don’t poll the survivors, poll the lost.

Exodus 1:8-2:10

If your life or your congregation is in transition, you would do well to study the Exodus cycle that runs through the fall season of the Common Lectionary. As a story teller, I’m mindful of the four parts of a good plot-line: 1) Character introduction, 2) Conflict, 3) Development, and 4) Resolution. At the end of Genesis, we are introduced to Joseph and Jacob/Israel. We are also given insights into the motivations and Character of God’s people (through Joseph’s brothers) and of their Egyptian hosts. Exodus throws us into the conflict between an immigrant people and their fearful neighbors. A break occurs. The answer God provides is a transitional process where Israel recovers identity and acquires the tools they need to overcome life’s adversities, while in the wilderness. The Thanksgiving Celebration of Deuteronomy 26 (the Lectionary misses this by a few chapters) and the entry into the promised land concludes the cycle. 


Exodus begins with a Pharaoh who forgets. Santayana had only half the story when he said that a people who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. The truth is, a people cannot progress spiritually until the come to grips with their history. Both slave and master are subject to irresolvable conflict and internal loss of soul, until they remember who they are and how life has brought them to this place. Transitional process always begins with a look in the rearview mirror.


This is critical. The key word of the Passover/Communion ritual is ‘remember.’ If you say, the Exodus story isn’t your story, but instead, happened to other people back then, then you are not a member of the people of Israel. Communion becomes a meaningless ritual when it is disconnected from our personal experience of the passion story. The new Pharaoh forgets that the arrival Joseph’s people saved his nation.


So, we see the US Congress fearing to enact new immigration policy. Why? Is it that we have forgotten our personal history as an immigrant people?


The current movie, The Giver, highlights a people’s need for remembrance. Segregating history to the purview of a few academics, or to one “Giver,” always leads to loss of spirituality. Color drains away from a people focuses on avoiding reality. We should welcome conflict, diversity, and connection with the outside world.


The story of Moses in the bullrushes follows the four part rule for a good plot-line. The characters of a forgetful Pharaoh, a resourceful people, and prophetic hero (Moses) are introduced. The conflict is presented, involving a government which does foolish things out of fear.  It is developed through women who rebel and take risks for the life of their people. It is resolved with the prophetic hero being lifted from the water and taken into the heart of the Pharaoh’s family. When you tell this story, say, “This is my story. I am Pharaoh, Miriam, and Moses.”

What does this movie have in common with Exodus?
Pentecost 16
Standardized tests and Clergy Metrics have a lot in common

All across our country, school districts are in an uproar over metrics. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, they are short 200 teachers for this week’s first day of school. Why? Because the state has adopted a Metrics system which evaluates teachers on the performance of their students in standardized tests. Perhaps, the United Methodist Church should observe this mess before we wade deeper into using metrics (statistics, such as the change in church attendance) to evaluate pastoral performance. 


I don’t have a problem with accountability. I have a problem with lazy metrics. In an ideal world, supervisory personnel would frequently visit each classroom and observe teachers first hand. Testing would only be done as an aide to the student, as they seek master the material. Teamwork would be encouraged, not replaced by metrics driven competition. Recognizing the flaws of lazy metrics, some professions are investing in evaluative systems based on peer review. Current advances in sociology and organizational theory are pointing the way towards accountability processes which develop the passions that are latent in all good teachers and preachers. 


The United Methodist Church desperately needs to recover its call to spread scriptural holiness across the land. Keeping the main thing, the main thing (that is, the love of Christ), is likely to become more difficult if we continue down the metric road. Pastors will fight to be placed in situations where numerical growth is easy. They will, like some teachers, give up on the Gospel and learn to teach to the test.


The driving passion of the Wesleyan movement in post-colonial America, was reaching marginalized people and providing them with Christian fellowship, the sacraments, and social healing. The question wasn’t, how do we get more members, but how do we address the particular needs of the people in this particular community. Wesley’s metrics weren’t helped by his tendency to stand by the coal mines as the shifts were changing and preach to the miners filing by.


To be fair, the current public education system in New Mexico is broken. The legislators and governor needed to do something. I wish, they could have had the resources and courage not to do the lazy thing. The cycle of poverty in New Mexico, and in other states, needs to be addressed using the best methods available. Community development and parental participation need to be addressed.


The thing is, we are in a better place to do the right thing in the United Methodist Church. Transitional process needs to be taught. Pastoral accountability needs to be based on teamwork and involvement in the community. Peer review needs to replace metrics. Supervisors need to supervise proactively with compassion, not simply wave sticks and carrots. Most of all, the task of sharing the Gospel needs to be made central.

United Methodist Church
We must love those who depend upon us

Someone has said that life isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s an adventure to be lived. One can extend this concept to ones personal relationships. My spouse, and how we live together, isn’t a problem to be solved. My spouse is a blessing to be loved. Our children and the people who depend upon my nuture, aren't problems to be solved. My church isn’t a problem for my denominational leader to solve. Even if the church decides to burn me at the stake and renege on their mission share (denominational apportionments). They are a congregation of Christians, who deserve support as they form a nurturing fellowship that works for them, require the sacraments, and should be respected for their missional vision. So, I ask the question, “Does my district superintendent (denominational overseer) love my church?”


Jesus taught us to love our neighbors. He said this in a time in which neighbors depended upon each other. There wasn’t a police force in the villages of first century Galilee. We are called to love those who depend upon us. This means our spouse, our children and close relations, our friends, and those we are personally responsible for at work. We are not called to think of them as problems to be solved. In fact, relationships can either be founded on love or founded on contractional obligations. The contractor who fixes my roof, isn’t obligated to love my house or my family. The roof is a problem for him to solve. He can’t be a lover and a contractor.


Jesus connects Christian service with loving ones neighbor. He says this in front of the religious leaders of his day. The Palestinian people depended upon them for spiritual guidance. But, the leaders saw the peasants of Galilee as a problem. They didn’t love these people. Jesus tries to clarify this love of neighbor issue, by speaking about a Good Samaritan. The priest and the levite saw the broken man as a problem that interrupted their important work. But the Samaritan, had compassion (Luke 10:33). The Samaritan saw the beaten man as someone who depended upon him. This made the stranger his neighbor. He loved his neighbor. So, I ask the question, “Does my district superintendent (denominational overseer) love my church?”


Looking back over the various District Superintendents I’ve had, I made an interesting discovery. Many didn’t love the church I was pastoring. They approached every interchange with the people of my congregation as if it were a problem to be solved. They emphasized the importance of tough leadership. I enjoyed their business savvy and felt supported as I shared my issues with them. 


I had one District Superintendent, whom I considered to be totally incompetent. I would go to him with the problems I was having with the people, and he would ask, “How is so and so, doing?” He refused to see the people as a problem. He had a big heart. Charge Conferences (annual meetings) with him, were like old home week. It has taken me twenty years to realize that he was the he was one of the best District Superintendents I ever had.


What is it about Love?

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

They drive you crazy and yet you can’t get rid of them. The Abraham to Joseph story cycle (Genesis 12 through 50), makes you wonder if God made a point of choosing the most dysfunctional family in the Middle East. Perhaps we are meant to be assured that having insanity practically gallop (see Arsenic and Old Lace) through your intimate relationships will not disqualify you from being God’s people. What is it about family?


One thing to start with: the theme of a family’s particular difficulties tends to be repeated from generation to generation. The only way to break the cycle is to do what Joseph did at the end of Genesis; confront, bring out into the open, and then forgive. Family systems work often begins with drawing a genogram (see John Bradshaw, Family Secrets) so that the broken relationships of the family can be shown repeating from generation to generation.


We don’t know about the family systems that Abraham and Sarah came from. Even after accepting God’s plan for their lives, they acted in a sinful way, breaking the brotherly relationship that Ismael and Isaac were meant to have. Some see the story of Sarah’s hatred of Ishmael as foreshadowing the animosity that underlays today’s Moslem-Jewish conflict in the Middle East. To me, the more interesting thing to speculate on is how the banishment of Ishmael became a family secret that permeates the rest of the Old Testament.


Isaac becomes father of Jacob and Esau, twins who are born fighting. Instead of working with these two wayward boys, so that they understand that they are both loved and encouraged to be different from each other, Rebecca and Isaac take sides and polarize the family home. The animosity builds until Jacob is banished from the promised land.


The lectionary skips over the complex and powerful soap opera of Jacob’s blended family. A second thing that we might want to say, is that relational skills are teachable. We need to talk about how raising children from different parents in the same home, or having children raised in multiple homes due to divorce, requires an additional skill set. The church should stand ready to help the modern family find its way with integrity, mutual respect, and sacrificial love. 


In today’s passage (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28), the older brothers are out grazing the sheep past Dothan because it is a long ways from home. They have decided that the best way to deal with their dysfunctional family is to stay far, far, away.  Like many in your church, escape (or self-banishment) is the least emotionally traumatic course. Family system problems get repeated until someone has the courage to confront, bring out into the open, and then forgive. In this story, Joseph gets banished to Egypt where he faces a choice: he can die in self-pity and anger over how rotten his family has been to him, or he can embrace the dream of reconciliation.

A Genogram helps family systems counselors visualize multi-generational conflict
Pentecost 14
Every church has a lifecycle

Jesus tells a parable about your church in Matthew 13:31-32. He says that your congregation is like an acorn which is planted and becomes, in time, a mighty oak. OK. Jesus uses a mustard seed instead of an acorn. If he were preaching in your church, I’m sure he would choose a plant familiar to your people. His parables were meant to be simple. Too often we get hung up on the fact that there are other seeds smaller than the mustard and other plants more majestic than the mustard bush. This all misses Jesus’ point. The church (kingdom of heaven) is meant to grow until it becomes shelter for the birds of the air. Church is meant to serve the kingdom of God by meeting the needs of others.


Using the acorn illustration, we can think about the life of a congregation passing through three stages. First, there is the small beginning. At some point, group of Christians gathered together to form a fellowship. Your congregation was born. Over time the acorn grew. Your congregation entered a second phase. It became an oak tree. Your church provided a nurturing place for faith in the midst of the community. There is for every congregation, a third phase. Just as there is birth and maturity, there is also death. Eventually the congregation closes and, hopefully, its assets are prayerfully distributed to help God’s Kingdom to carry on in a different form. This is the lumber or legacy phase of a church.


Using this parable, consider the following:


1. How does it feel to be a church leader during each of these three phases? 

+ In the acorn phase, there is a lot of enthusiasm but not much structure. Newly birthed and growing churches are exciting places to be. While the congregation may be small (and fragile) the sense of progress encourages everyone to make sacrifices.


+ In the Oak Tree phase, the focus of the church shifts to programs. The job of the leadership is to keep the sap flowing and ensure that every bird that lands on the tree gets what it needs to make a nest. This phase can last for decades and cause people to forget that they ever were an acorn, or will one day be lumber.


+ When you see your beloved tree fall and become lumber, it is easy to feel depressed. Leadership gets burned out. This is a important time, however, for the kingdom of God. By leaving an appropriate legacy, a dying congregation can continue to serve God. The leadership can insure that every member finds a new church home and every asset a missional use.


2. Is it ever possible to go backwards?

+ Obviously, churches on the verge of becoming lumber would love to go back to being healthy oak trees. Church experts are in agreement that the only way to move to a previous phase is to be radically born again. Transformation stories alway involve dying to who we have become and choosing to accept a totally new and frightening future.


3. Who are the birds

+ When I look at Jesus’ original parable, I am fascinated with the birds. Your church is meant to provide spiritual shelter and hope for a wide range of people. Some birds flutter through and briefly perch to catch their breath. Your mission must extend far beyond your membership.

For more information on the congregational life cycle see Martin F. Saarinen's work at Alban Institute
additional author: 
Alban Institute - Martin F. Saarinen
Where you steer your church depends upon HHH

My friend, Ed Kail, developed a useful tool for discussing your church’s attitude towards the outside world. By attitude, we are talking about the mid-point of the congregation or its collective DNA. On the whole, congregations think of themselves as either; being in Hospice, being a spiritual Hospital for those who join them, or as providers of Hospitality towards strangers. The question is not whether your pastor or some key members are trying to reach new people, it is, “how does the congregation, as a whole, see their work?” An outsider coming into your church might say: “They act as if the church is getting ready to close,” (Hospice) or “They are good at caring for their own,” (Hospital) or “They really want to reach out to others” (Hospitality).


The three words provide a helpful discussion starter for church councils, planning retreats, or visioning sessions. They can be presented this way:


  1. Chapel Road Church is a wonderful and comfortable place. They maintain their building and show real Christian love for each other. But, old members die off or move away and the young don’t join or come very faithfully. Statistically, they are in decline, even though they are doing everything they can to grow.
  2. St Luke’s Church concentrates on helping its members become better people. They have programs for the whole family, as well as, a pastoral staff focused on caring for those who have made this church their home. 
  3. Church on the Road are mission oriented people. When new people move into the community, this is the church that welcomes them and asks, “Is there anything we can help you with?” They care more about loving the stranger than church growth. 


Chapel/Hospice, B) St. Luke’s/Hospital, or C) On the Road/Hospitality, which church is the most like yours? What makes you say that? Have you noticed a change, over the years? That is, were you at one time mostly C) and now are more B) or A)?


There is a real hierarchy to Ed’s three H’s. High Hospitality aligns the closest to how Jesus did ministry. These congregations tend to be proactive, seeking new opportunities for service. Churches that fall into the middle ground, and become Hospital-like, may be doing OK or slowly declining. The question they need to consider is, how to we shift our focus to become more outwardly oriented? As long as the congregation is focused inward, it will be reactive. That is, open to conflict and responding to change in a knee-jerk fashion.


The Hospice church or chapel is in the most difficult place. Congregations that focus on caring for their current members and buildings, are digging their own graves. They will in time die. I feel that these congregations need to engage in a discernment process to see if it is God’s will that they remain as they are or if they should attempt to be reborn. These congregations tend to be passive. The value of declaring them to be ‘in hospice,’ is that they can shift towards leaving a legacy and dying with dignity.

additional author: 
Ed Kail
Romans 8:26-39
I Kings 3:5-12

We don’t know how to pray as we ought is a striking and often overlooked line. Yet, it may be the truest thing the Apostle Paul ever wrote. It is not in human nature to distinguish between true and false communion with God. We think praying is simply a matter of closing our eyes and folding our hands. Or mentally doing something like that. Some describe prayer as simply talking to God like you would a friend. God is wholly other. The pre-socratic philosopher, Meno, asks, “How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Having glimpsed God down a long corridor, dimmed by your own inadequacies, how do you pray?


Look at the Old Testament lesson where Solomon achieves success in prayer by putting aside his own ambitions and praying to be wise (I Kings 3:5-12). From this, we would think that praying is simply a matter of guessing what God wants us to have, and then asking for it. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, do we? God must not like our prayers because he keeps giving us the opposite of what we ask for. We ask for patience and we receive more frustrations. We ask for peace in our household and we receive more conflict. We ask for enough wealth to be secure and we find ourselves jobless and dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I get the feeling that God’s intention is to throw us fully into life, like a baby being thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to swim, and then demand that we find the Holy Spirit in the few spare moments we have between crises. We learn to pray while half drowned and treading water. Like Eli Wiesel, we acquire wisdom in the midst of holocaust.


But how can we find the other whose nature is totally and mysteriously unknown to us? This is the question that Paul spends the passage from Romans 7:21-8:39 answering. In 8:1, we are given an abrupt answer. If we invite God into our hearts, he hardwires a connection. We go from being unable to pray to being unable to stop praying. We go from seeing God as a rich but distant uncle, to being a parasite under our skin. I imagine it’s a bit like becoming pregnant, children go from being an nice abstraction to being a resident heartburn. God is a mixed blessing.


This is white-knuckle spirituality. The best way to handle it, is to spend the sermon knocking out the familiar props that people seek for when they pray. Tell them that you don’t really know how to pray. Tell them what it means to be saved and discover the compulsion of real spirituality. Give them an insight into your inner wrestlings. Good luck!

Do we understand art? Do we understand prayer?
Pentecost 12
My Front Door

Whether you are moving, staging a revolution, having kids, or, as I am, remodeling the house, you will pass through a state of maximum mess. All transition times have stages. Home remodeling has six:

  1. putting things off
  2. finding the money
  3. disrupting your life
  4. maximum mess
  5. seeking lost things
  6. getting it done


Having studied Kubla-Ross’s 5 stages of death, I was prepared for the anger, bargaining, and depression of this thing. I wasn’t expecting my loss of temper. Midway through the week of maximum mess, I got into an argument with colleagues that I serve with on a church committee. It was a discussion that didn’t need to happen then, nor did it need the negative energy I poured into it. I wrote scathing emails. I crafted a long position paper. I wasted time that I should have spent doing the remodeling and ending the mess.


Depression and anger are a part of every transition. Those of us who like to write, leave our paint rollers and pour our spleen onto the pages. Those who talk, rant. Those who break things, break things. Those who are less committed, leave. All of these are unhealthy.


It is helpful to recognize where we are. Transition has definite stages. Certain behavior is inappropriate at certain stages. When in maximum mess, don’t attempt to change others. Breathe. Get away for a day if you can. And get back to leading your family through the wilderness.

Matthew 13:24-30

It seems strange dealing with the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) in the middle of the summer. The hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” puts this parable to music. It is rarely sung except at Thanksgiving. Then, the actions of the farmer make sense. By telling Jesus’ parable in the summer, we preserve its shock value. The farmer lets the weeds grow among his corn. He’s my kind of gardener. We aren’t meant to imitate the farmer of this story. We are meant to think about what it means to be wheat or corn. We are meant to think about what happens to the weeds in the end.


This parable is one of Jesus’ many end of time stories. Why do the the good die young and the bad continue to do bad things with impunity? Well, Jesus tells us, this is temporary. In the final judgment, the weeds will be gathered and roasted. Bad people are weeds. Good people are corn. Get the picture?


In all of Jesus’ end of time stories, it’s easy to tell the bad from the good. The bad are the goats who miss the opportunity to do good things to the unfortunate people who are thirsty, strangers, naked, or in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). Goats don’t look at all like sheep. The bad weeds are the foolish maidens who forget to pack extra oil and so are in the dark when the master comes (Matthew 25:1-13). There isn’t any grey. You either got oil and a light or you are out in the dark. The bad weeds are the Levite and the Priest who walk right by the beat up fellow that the Good Samaritan stops to help (Luke 10:25-37). I’m a lousy gardener, but I know the difference between weeds and corn.


This then, becomes a central teaching that we dare not avoid or down play. There will come a judgement day for every person. From our human point of view, everything looks complicated and muddy. We aren’t designed to segregate the spiritual plants from the weeds. That is clearly God’s job. The fact that He doesn’t find it hard to do this should give us comfort, as well as, fear.


Comfort, because we, the wheat and corn people, can sing ‘Blessed Assurance’ and know that we have been totally saved. God holds on to his people. In the daily struggle, we get some things right and some things wrong. Some moments we look like sinners, some moments like saints. But, our salvation is made of sturdier stuff. God has called us to be corn. We have been born again.


Fear, because spiritual things have real consequence. The weeds will one day be plucked and burned. One day, this world will be judged. God’s infinite patience is not cause to discount the certainty of the day of judgement.


Lord, give us courage to speak about the end of time the way Jesus did.

Jesus tells many stories about the end of time
Pentecost 11
A good Visioning Process sees the whole church

Give a people ownership over their own land, some basic tools, and the fruits of their labor, and most communities will build homes, educate their children, and peacefully meet their basic needs. I guess that I am optimistic about human nature. Give a congregation some sense of control over their own destiny, a few basic tools, and a process for guiding group decision making, and even the most pathetic local church leadership will chart a path towards parish fruitfulness. I guess I am optimistic about the power of God’s Spirit to speak to people gathered in biblically centered discernment, prayerful fellowship, and weekly worship.


To that end, I have been doing retreats based upon my Reality Check 101 book (available from Amazon). This is a discernment oriented visioning process. When I present these workshops, I give people basic tools and then set them free to work at their own pace. I don’t ask congregations to conform to any set process. They just need to learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit and each other.


When I do a weekend retreat, this is the usual process:

    Workshop 1: The Three Questions - Taken from from Chapter 1 of the Reality Check 101 book. The questions are: “What is the nature of church?” “Where is society taking our church?” & “How can this church do God's will?”

        Break and Q&A

        Workshop 2: Getting off the Roundabout - concerns why so many churches find themselves stuck today (Reality Check 101 Chapter 5). We keep doing the same things, going around and around, and not getting off  the roundabout or rotary (think English roads). The four exits are four general visions for the congregation's future.

        Break and Q&A

        Workshop 3: Using Discernment to make Decisions - Teaches the three methods for making decisions in the church, as well as in our personal lives. Spiritual discernment is presented as the appropriate way to do goal setting. 

        Worship Service Sermon: Thriving through Transition


I can be contacted at:

Bill Kemp

412-956-2565 (cell)  412-798-2808 (office)

5613 Bower Ave

Verona, PA 15147


Matthew 13:1-9
Genesis 25:19-34

Anne Dillard whacks us on the side of the head when she says, “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is…  Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.” Jesus likens God’s evangelism to a farmer who throws most of his seed away (Matthew 13:1-9). The profligate sower throws his precious seed out on the path, where the Devil and the birds whisk it away. Then there is the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:19-34). We would like to blame Esau for wasting his birthright, but it’s God who puts the red-headed man on the stupid path where the Devil steals his soul.


Genesis 25, Matthew 13, and Romans 8, all seem to be driving home the point that the people who enter into God’s kingdom, do so by grace. Most people in this world are not spiritual. I’m not talking about religious affiliation or church attendance. I’m saying that the seed of having a real love for God is wasted on most people. Jesus says that God is willing to play the odds and let most people live their lives with nominal affection for him. But the few seeds that fall on fertile souls, burst forth into miraculous fruitfulness. They respond and yield a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirty times more seed than what was sown.


I like what Elizabeth Barrett Browning says,


Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware…


I think these things are meant to be disturbing. They contradict the musical dictum that every good boy does fine. We could go on to talk about Saul verses David, or the two thieves who hung with Jesus, or even if we were brave, talk about Mary verses Martha.

This story can only be understood from Jacob's viewpoint
Pentecost 10
Redesign your church so it becomes what Christ has in mind

In my workshops, I often show a slide of Steve Jobs introducing us to the first iPad. Then I ask the question, “How should we design our life together, as a congregation, so that we become what Christ has in mind?” The analogy is simple. The success of Apple Computer stems from the vision that Steve Jobs had for insanely great products. He was a tyrant, constantly berating people who were content to make “pretty good” computers and cell phones. The corporate culture that grew at One Infinity Drive, Cupertino California, is exactly the same culture as we desire for the church, only with Jesus at the helm.


Now there is another reason to pay attention to Apple. It has been nearly three years since Jobs passed away and Apple is still going. More than just surviving, it posted an insanely great profit in the first quarter of 2014. Two years after Steve’s death, Apple broke into the Fortune 500s top ten list. While the succession plan for Apple wasn’t smooth (the leadership faced a lawsuit for lying about Job’s illness to investors), it worked.


Steve Jobs was intentional about choosing Tim Cook to follow him as Apple’s CEO. It is hard to imagine a more opposite personality. Cook’s leadership style is calm and detail oriented. The only thing they shared, was a vision for making insanely great products. As pastors come and go in the church, we need to stop focusing on how different their personalities and leadership gifts are. We need to ask simpler questions like, “Do they love Jesus with all their heart?” and “Are they committed to helping others become disciples?”


In his final days, Jobs told people, “When I’m gone, I don’t want you to ask what would Steve do? Be creative.” We are often tradition bound in the church. There is a fundamentalist philosophy in even the most liberal congregation that says, let’s return to the first century.


Disciples of Jesus are not bound to past interpretations of Christian practice. We instead commit ourselves to make today's church insanely great. I am convinced this involves bringing to our neighborhoods the promises that Jesus made in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-16). As insanely loving followers of Jesus: We bless the poor. We comfort the mournful. We partner with the meek. We fill those who are hungry. We show the full depth of God’s mercy. We honor our souls and seek for spiritual purity in our motivations. We act as peacemakers. We accept persecution without desiring revenge. We are humbled and honored when people treat us as they did Jesus, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. We live as salt. We shine as light. We don’t hide. We abide.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Someone has observed that Americans play at their work (hence our declining productivity) and work at their play (hence the billion dollar recreation industry). To those who trick out their computers to play video games, spend hours perfecting their golf swing, and exhaust their weekends in constant motion, the Lord says, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Many of us don’t know how to rest. When Jesus calls us to come to him and find rest for our souls, something in our hearts says, yes! But then we ignore Jesus and listen to our busy calendar.  Others, though, have a problem being fruitfully employed. The Lord’s word to them is “Six days you shall labor…” Americans have become so enamored with time and labor saving devices, that they have forgotten the value of spending a day at one’s craft. 


Perhaps half the people in church on a Sunday have a serious issue with play and resting. They can’t receive Jesus’ promise of an easy yoke and a light burden, because they have lost the ability to receive the gift of rest. Those who are out of touch with their inner need for recreation, will also be out of touch with their soul. Perfectionism, work addiction, and the mistaken belief that everything depends upon our efforts, are spirit robbing plagues, both inside and outside the church. We need to rotate our church leadership. We need to regularly ask workers to step away from their positions when they loose perspective, becoming enmeshed and controlling. We need to learn to have a sense of humor. We need to take up dancing. Without joy, there is no communication of the Gospel.


The other half lives very differently. They pass by opportunities to grow in their discipleship and service to Christ. Ancient farmers used to pair up new calves with seasoned bulls, giving the youngsters an ‘easy yoke.’ In this way, the calve would learned by example the work ethic of the mature bull. Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, provides us with many lessons on how and when to intentionally rest one’s soul. But he also, was always about his Heavenly Father’s work. He lived with a purpose. We, like him, can leave this world a better place.


Jesus in Matthew 11:16 is watching children play. The game they are doing is similar to musical chairs. The players must dance vigorously when the music is joyful and then slump gloomily when the tempo slows. Like most children’s games, it teaches a lesson. We need to be flexible in life. Sometimes the voice of the Holy Spirit sweetly calls us to rest. Other portions of our lives are to be set aside for our vocation. Many of our psychological and spiritual ills are rooted in our choice to muddle through life at one hazardous setting. Worse still, we criticize those who change with their context. Jesus was all about change.

Jesus spent a lot of time playing tunes that people weren't ready to hear
Pentecost 9
Do you make time to touch and heal?

Jesus tells a powerful parable in Luke 10:30-36. It seems that the more we preach it, the less we hear it. We certainly don’t want to apply it to ourselves, even though clergy and church leaders are its target.

1) The theme of the parable is missional relationships. Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” It can be reframed, “How should church leaders relate to the world?” If we narrowly interpret the missional neighborhood to be the members of our congregation, everybody but God will be happy. We will inherit honor and position, but not eternal life.

2) How much time should we spend trying to fix our church? In Jesus’ parable, the ordained people fail to do what needs to be done because they are overbooked. They are committed to rituals, church meetings, and silly concerns about purity. For them the institution takes precedence over individual need. Jesus turns his focus away from the institution and its leaders, and invites us to consider one ordinary, but authentic, person. This Good Samaritan becomes our model for Christ-like behavior.

3) Can we be both a good pastor and a good person? The Samaritan acts out of his ‘human-ness’ to do what is right. The clergy people in the story have lost their humanity. What about us? Do we value our parishioners more than our family? Are we more comfortable in the church than we are outside of the church?

4) Who is more Post Modern, the levite and the priest, or the Good Samaritan? To be a ‘neighbor’ is to be an authentic human being. Post Modern people value authenticity above all else. Your church is not loosing members because today’s generation is irreligious. It is being abandoned because your neighbors demand authentic behavior. 

5) What if my church won’t give me a Good Samaritan fund (pastor’s discretionary account)? What the Good Samaritan does, he does out of his own pocket. Looking back on my 30 year ministry, I realized that the most significant moments happened when I acted on my own and served out of my own gut-level compassion. Above all things, we must love. We lead by example. We must strive to be authentic Christians first, and church leaders second.

Genesis 22:1-14

If we listen to Spock and follow the dictum that the good (comfort) of the many outweighs the needs of the few, then we best do the usual talk of Abraham’s faith in nearly sacrificing Isaac or skip the passage all together. The truth is, Isaac is profoundly passive throughout his short trip across the Bible’s stage. He is a young teen when he carries the wood for his own impalement, making him an accessory to attempted murder. You have to put the near-sacrifice of Isaac within the context of a life, almost not worth living. Not only does he pale in comparison to Abraham and Jacob, Sarah and Hagar, but hopefully, he compares badly to you and me.


So the mission, should you choose to accept it, is to speak a word of encouragement to those who are living codependent lives. Is there anything we can say to help people today, who are carrying the wood of their own sacrifice? 


The biblical background is laid our well by G. Stolyarov II in  I give a sample below:


Throughout Genesis, Isaac is predominantly passive and devoid of initiative. His life is shaped by others' decisions, to which he is not a party. Isaac is first a victim to his father's intention to sacrifice him to God. Only through divine intervention, not his own will, is Isaac saved. Then, Isaac's marriage is arranged for him and his wife procured by his father's servant. Isaac's family life, too, is subject to the machinations of his wife and son…

 Isaac becomes a victim to his son Jacob's deception. He is therefore impelled to reject allocating his inheritance as he sees fit. Isaac tragically leads his entire life mired in the delusion that good things can come to him without any initiative on his part.

Note that Isaac is a teen
Pentecost 8
It's not just the jargon that we need to learn

Went to the new movie The Chef yesterday. A major theme is the power of social media to make or break any enterprise. The Chef’s twittering brought new people into an established old restaurant, but the management was unwilling to change its menu to meet the new expectations of the new people. The restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) shouts, “from now on, I have to approve all tweets.” In other words, we can only use this revolution if everything is run through the council that meets every other month. Sounds like the church.


At least two other lessons should be observed:


1) In the movie, the Chef depends upon his 10 year old son to teach him the new technology. The major transitions, however, occur when the Chef picks up the device and does his own thing. Behind every lousy church web page is a young outsider that’s been hired to do it. Social Media is highly personal and feeds on the participation of “free to be me” individuals. As I have written before, you need to spread out your social media into the hands of diverse congregants. Each group and each interest, needs to have a way to post its own passions.


2) The Chef succeeded in utilizing social media because he had a clear vision of what kind of food he wanted to offer to people. Mission came first, then twittering. His social media said, “this is what I cook.”  If a congregation knows what it has to offer, then it can use social media wrong and get good results. See Isaiah 55.

Genesis 21:8-21

The story of Abraham in Genesis 21:8-21 is impossible to preach, so why not take it on this week? In it, God is criminally negligent, Abraham guilty of attempted murder, and the notion of predestination affirmed. There are few places in the Bible more open to controversy. There are some great truths, however, that you can teach using it. You can talk about the sacredness of family, marriage, and the grace of God. You can also preach the great lesson of Scott Peck, that life is painful and we can not grow as people until we embrace the emotional difficulties of our current situation. Because Abraham is unwilling to face the crisis of his family on this day, he subjects himself to a lifetime of regret.


But first, we have to talk about Sarah. Sarah sees Ishmael playing with her baby Isaac and is overwhelmed by the green eyed monster, Jealousy. Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn child, something no son of hers will ever be. There is something more. Sarah sees the financial resources and the family’s prestige as a fixed commodity. The more one child gets, the less that is available for the other. This ‘zero sum game’ is Sin’s most popular myth. Her grandchild, Jacob, will divide the family’s wealth among 12 sons and not diminish the inheritance one iota. In todays world, people are always using the devil’s zero sum logic and abandoning God’s promise of abundance.


A brave preacher, will take this opportunity to talk about how the word ‘Family,’ is being redefined. Even for Abraham, the word family didn’t mean a heterosexual marriage, resulting in 2.25 children, living in a suburban home, surrounded by a white picket fence. Here is God’s grace, that the father of many nations will have under his tent a diversity of races and children by more than one mother. The more I spend time talking with my neighbor, who has fathered children with three women and is now attempting to regain custody of a child living in another state, the more I think that the family of Abraham is not that unusual. Think in detail about the families of your congregation before you preach. What message can you give that will encourage them to accept the complexity of their own situations and seek for God’s grace. The time has ended for our participating in a shaming culture that lifts up one homogenous image of family as the only acceptable form.


Finally, God is negligent at the beginning of this story. Sarah is badly misbehaving and needs to be struck by lightening. God doesn’t punish us that way though. He doesn’t want us to be good for the wrong reason (see Job 1:9-11). The consequences of our sins, are usually born by others. Abraham shares the guilt that should have been Sarah’s alone. Here we encounter one of the mysteries of marriage. They are a unit. Even when one of them does wrong, God doesn’t act to separate them. God instead, extends salvation to Hagar and Ishmael. When they come to tell the story of their own lives, they won’t mention Sarah or Abraham. They will speak about the God who came to them in the hour of their need. I try to avoid the quagmire of predestination by saying that God’s grace can only be spoken of in the first person.

Be sure and talk about the plight of Hagar
Pentecost 3
The farewell sermon should commit people into God's hands

The final message that an exiting pastor gives to their congregation has only one purpose; you must hand them over to God. It’s like the committal prayer at a funeral. No matter how rotten a person has been (or how rotten your pastoral tenure has been), no matter how short or long their life (or your ministry), no matter what the circumstances of their death (or the reasons for your departure), when you stand at the gravesite you hand someone over to God. People should leave your final worship service feeling like they are now in better hands. Don’t let your ego get in the way of this simple task.


I have found the benedictions of St. Paul to be particularly useful for saying good bye to a congregation. Paul was good at it. He said good bye to people all the time. His image of “one person plants, another waters, but God owns the farm” provides an apt image of the itinerant calling (I Corinthians 3:5-9).  His benedictions, though, make the task of saying good bye simpler, by putting the focus on the on going power of God.


Take Romans 16:25-27:


Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith— to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

A three point sermon says:

1: No matter how good of a preacher you are, it should be made clear that the Gospel doesn’t belong to you.  There is one message, one baptism, one faith, one hope. It remains. Each itinerant pastor shares the same Gospel. The good news, at the heart of our faith, does not depend on who it is who is preaching it.

2: God’s plan is to establish his church. God still has a plan for the church you are leaving. The best is yet to come (say it like you mean it).

3: God is the only one that is wise (so stop trying to figure out who’s to blame for the pastor leaving).  Focus on the wisdom of God and the fact that He knows best. Human understanding is way overrated.

II Corinthians 13:11-14

Whatever is preached this coming week, it should be a continuation of Pentecost. You can go to Genesis and talk about how the creating spirit of God continues to act in the world; but that we as the Church have been given the commandment to be fruitful, multiply, and care for the earth. Or you can go to the Great Commission in Matthew 28 and talk about how the Holy Spirit wasn’t given as a personal heart warmer, but as a dynamic power for the congregation to do its task of making disciples. I’m going to suggest, though, that you look at I Corinthians 13:11-13. Here Paul closes a difficult letter by highlighting three words. They are the words he would shout from the ship’s rail if he were sailing away forever from them.  They are three reminders of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, that must continue in this world of change.


Farewell: This word doesn’t mean good-bye. It means to be joyful and continue in the joy of your relationship with God, even if your current teacher or spiritual guide is departing. The Holy Spirit is an outwardly propelling spirit. It sends people out to share the Gospel with the world. Hubble, the astronomer, discovered that all of the galaxies of the universe are speeding outward and away from each other at an incredible rate. If God does this with the stars, what will he do with the people he has empowered by the Holy Spirit? (see the June 12th blog on the farewell sermon  ).


Get-it-together: Paul uses a Greek word that is variously translated; get perfect, heed my warning, put things in order, etc.  However you say it, it has to do with continuous improvement. One reason Pentecost doesn’t happen often in the church today, is because we are more comfortable with our past and our traditions than we are with a Holy Spirit that drives us to be constantly creating and doing new things. Paul is here, as elsewhere, calling people to go on to perfection. We must strive for what we don’t have yet.


Love: Where the above have been single words in Greek, Paul now takes three lines to say that the power of the Holy Spirit depends upon unity. People must choose to love one another. This love doesn’t come from conformity, but rather we accept each others differences and we pray for the church to become a more diverse place. 

Even Mario had to undergo continuous improvement
Pentecost 2
Good product and good management doesn't always equal good outcome

Why did Kodak die? The simple answer is that people stopped buying film. Besides the world’s most famous film, Kodachrome, Kodak made darkroom chemicals and papers. Today, when photographs are printed people use inkjets. There are those who would fault Kodak’s leadership with not shifting full time into the digital camera market or becoming a leader in providing paper and ink. This is worst kind of Monday morning quarterbacking. Kodak has enjoyed great leadership. They would need a leader like Harry Potter to take on Canon, Nikon, or Epson. The digital market already belongs to others. Similar flights of fantasy occur when Bishops seek for young, highly trained, clergy persons to turn around the institutional church. New leaders aren’t going to teach this old institution to dance.

    Leadership is important. Responding to context and current reality is even more important. Kodak has died, and through the miracle of bankruptcy, emerged as a new company, one hundredth the size of the old giant. This new Kodak, which specializes in movie film and imaging products, has the same survival chances of any new start up (1:5). It is basically a baby. The more it thinks like a new born child, the more likely it is to do what needs done today to grow. The point is,  is  there is nothing a leader can do, except seek the best way to position the assets, before they all depart, to provide seed capital for something new.  We need to be grasped is that there is nothing that the old Kodak has which the new Kodak can use, except perhaps for a few patents. There is nothing that the old church has which the new emerging church can use, except for some cash.

    I think our focus needs to be on the current mission that Jesus calls us to. Each congregation needs to discern its own calling. The question, “How do we get out onto our street and show the love of Jesus?” needs to drive us through the transition into the post modern age. We are Kodak, there is nothing we can do to change that. The only thing God expects of us is to be faithful to the Gospel.

United Methodist Church
Help people find your church calendar on Facebook

Nonprofit agencies and Churches need to look at Facebook differently:


A healthy, growing, organization will have concentric circles. They may have a hundred dues paying members, a couple hundred who ‘like’ what the group is doing and reads any news they see about the group, and a perhaps a thousand people who occasionally check in on social media. Growth requires expanding the outer circle.


The next public event that you want people to come to should be stuck to the top of your Facebook page. People forget. Facebook helps remind them.


You need to have carefully thought out set of guidelines for posting to Facebook. You give permission to post to the organizations Facebook page (FB calls this a closed group). Once a person is approved, they must abide by the rules or they will be banned from posting, which is not the same thing as losing membership in the group (don’t make it a big deal).


Consider the following ideas for FB guidelines: 

  • No political items 
  • Positive emphasis
  • Pictures of natural disasters should contain prayer/response information
  • No post more than 150 words
  • No reposts without expressed permission of source (this includes cartoons)
  • No advertisements - donation appeals need prior approval
  • Posting implies permission for item to be used by organization for its own purposes and publicity
Acts 1:6-14
Matthew 25:31-46

I just noticed it for the first time; instead of angels, there are two men in white robes sending the disciples back home after Jesus ascends (verse 10, Acts 1:6-14). And, the men aren’t floating above the heads of the disciples, but standing beside them. Luke then reminds us of the geography; the disciples need to walk down hill in order to ender the city of Jerusalem. Once in the city, they don’t go to the posh neighborhood on the upper Northwest corner. They go to the upper room which was conveniently near the market place center of the city. We are being told, by all this body language, that the proper response to the reality of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is to go focus on the mundane. What do people in the city need? Is is possible that those beside us are angels in disguise? How do we treat the people we live with, knowing that as we feed and clothe the poor, and visit the sick and imprisoned, we are serving the Lord of Heaven (Matthew 25:31-46)?


Another thing people often miss, is that there are women in the Upper Room. As the disciples wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, they fellowshipped, shared bread, and pray with a crowd of about 120 believer. Half of these may have been women. They are mentioned here because they will a significant role in the day to day life of the church the Holy Spirit will create, that is, they will be in leadership.


Finally, I have to note that Jesus’ family are present in the Upper Room. Jesus had been dismissive of them. While he was doing the work of the Gospel, his family kept wanting him to return home and enter a 12 step program for people who have a messiah complex. His brother James would later become the leader of the church in Jerusalem, so it is good that he is in the Upper Room praying with the others for the Holy Spirit. The fact that this Galilean family is here in Jerusalem shows that they have had a conversion. They have left the “We want Jesus for ourselves” status of most church goers, and become missionaries to the city of Jerusalem.

Easter 7
Ascension of Jesus
Putting up a Facebook page isn't hard

I have gone from a Facebook hater to a daily user over the past two years. There is statistical evidence that many of the people your church currently ministers to, and hopes to minister to, have done the same thing. I can identify three reasons for this in my life. Each has a direct application to your church’s use of this media:


1) Those people in my extended family who love snapshots, use Facebook to share their daily lives.

Application: Congregations are fellowships. A “group FB page” that carries photos of events at the church will build interest in those events. You can also share mission links to the projects that your church supports (I think the Apostle Paul would love this). The trick is to give the ‘right to post’ to someone in every group in the church. Then encourage people in the congregation to ‘follow’ the church FB page.


2) I keep running into people who use FB today the way I used email ten years ago. Some people prefer to use FB to communicate. 

Application: Every church should advertise every event and program in multiple media. There are people who will check the church’s Facebook page to see the date of the next potluck dinner. Putting something on Facebook should be an extension of putting something on the church calendar. Also, you need to be prepared for those who will use FB messages like email.


3) A club that I belong to uses Facebook as a way to do club functions between meetings.

Application: If you want to get people to read their Bible, then have someone post a Bible verse of the day to your church FB page. If properly formatted, are there prayer concerns you would share on FB? You may want to give someone the job of receiving prayers and then deleting any identifying information. Format: “A member is facing surgery this Tuesday,” and “Pray for those graduating from Riverview High School this week.”


The key to all these things is giving those church members that you trust, the right to post those things that interest them on the church’s FB page. Don’t make the mistake of assigning FB to one person. Go to every group and say, “Who here uses FB?” Then ask them to add posting to the church page to their current use of the media. Think of it as tithing your FB time.

John 14:15-21

Some people would say that when Jesus promised us eternal life, that would be his greatest promise. But, I would say No.  If I am a failure at my current life, then why would I want to live forever? I think Jesus came to save that half of the world that is so depressed, broken, and ashamed, that they only hope for one life to live and that it be short. To them, and those of us who already know the love of Jesus, the greatest promise is found in John 14:15-21 where he promises to send the Holy Spirit into into our lives as a strong, day to day, Advocate. With this advocate, Jesus promises that we will never be like orphans, powerless and nameless. Even the newest Christian, the person of weak faith and who has a horrible personal history, will be able to claim that they are in Jesus and through Jesus, in the creator of the Universe.


These words need to be unpacked in the sermon:

  • What did Jesus mean when he used the word Paraclete (comforter, refresher, advocate, helper)?
  • How have we experienced being orphaned, or abandoned, and how is the promised Spirit going to change that?
  • What does it mean to be in Christ?


These words form the basis for the great promise of life in the Spirit. They also form a good starting place for our summer sabbath (this is Memorial Day Weekend):

  • How will you experience the refreshment of the Holy Spirit this summer?
  • If Jesus promises not to abandon you, how will this summer reflect your identity as a child of God?
  • How will we ground our selves (ie. utilize a daily devotional practice), in Christ?
Today many are being left orphaned by war, natural disasters, and economic inequity
Easter 6
Memorial Day Weekend
Reality Check book for individuals is being written

Last April, I brought out Reality Check 101 as a vision and discernment process for local churches (available through Amazon). While I was working on the book, I kept thinking that I should write a complimentary book to help people gain insight about personal discernment and career planning. Initially, I thought, church leaders who participated in a Reality Check vision for their church, would like to apply the same principles to their individual lives. Now, I realize that I have it backwards. People need tools for doing personal visioning. If the church can provide a short class on finding your own path or discerning God’s will for you, then key laity will be equipped for the related task of congregational goal setting and organizational clarity. 


Clergy and Laity today are hungry for a biblically sound process for life direction. Churches are failing to teach all of the Gospel when they fail to teach discernment. Jesus wasn’t just hiring assistants when he called Peter, James, and John to be fishers of men, he was doing vocational counseling. He invited people into a process for discerning personal clarity through the Holy Spirit. 


Jesus was talking about personal visioning when he said:

 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23) 


 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21)

Could he not also be talking about our occupations and volunteer pursuits when he said:

 Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)


A Reality Check personal vision process would begin with exploration and prayer around three key questions:

  1. What is the nature of human life?
  2. Where is the world taking us?
  3. What does God require of me?


Quiet consideration and group listening around each of these questions always leads to surprising answers. An application question can be paired to each question:

  A1) What dehumanizing dead ends to I need to avoid? 

  A2) How can I remain relevant and engaged as I grow older?

  A3) How can I be God-led, as opposed to guilt driven?  (God loves you and everyone else has a wonderful plan for your life)  


Reality Check 101 revisited the role that Spiritual Passion plays in the local church in providing the fuel for meaningful change. Unless a sufficient amount of Spiritual Passion is brought into the congregational system, side issues will alway stall new visions. In a similar way, a personal sense of urgency lies behind any meaningful change in a person’s life. Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree because he was motivated. Many people today feel as if they are driving their life into a rotary and there are exits towards change, but they lack the spiritual energy needed to choose the exit they need to take. All personal vision quests need to be undergirded with what Wesley called the means of grace; Prayer, Scripture Study, Group Worship, Personal Worship, and the Sacraments. 


A personal vision process would offer four exits off of the rotary:

  1. Caring for the clan
  2. Building for the future
  3. Partnering with the weak
  4. Communicating truth and beauty


These four exits are distinctly altruistic and religious. Christian visioning should be different from secular processes. It also should lead people away from the popular “name it and claim it” type of programs, with their get what you want from the Universe approach. 


Further, people should leave behind the old notion that career choices, vocations, and the paths we walk on in life, are set in concrete when we leave high school. God has a way of calling people like Abraham and Sarah to do new things. We shouldn’t set goals or objectives. We need instead to find waypoints and compass headings. Life’s path sometimes takes us back to revisit a passion that we haven’t experienced for many years.

Acts 7:55-60

Take your kids or youth group into McDonald's. When they pile back into the car, have each person tell what they saw. Phrase it: “What’s one thing did you see that you didn’t expect to see?” or  “What is something you saw that no one else saw?” The punchline of the story of the stoning of Stephen is found in what he saw. Stephen says, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This wasn’t what others expected Stephen to see. It wasn’t what they saw. The young pharisee named Saul, for one, saw to it that no one stole anyone’s coats. He saw an execution go according to plan. Good thing for Stephen, this wasn’t Texas.


It may be fun to remind today’s church goers how similar their vision is to that of the crowd that stoned Stephen. What the elders of Israel saw were the political realities. The Romans needed to be assured that Judaism was a stable religion and that its holy city could be kept under Sanhedrin control. They saw Christianity as a disruptive force, similar to the zealot movement causing trouble in the highlands. They saw people of the town speaking well of these Christians because they were feeding the poor and bringing healing to those who were distressed.


They saw Stephen, a deacon, tirelessly serving the needs of those the Sanhedrin had forgotten. What they wanted to see was Stephen funneling new converts into their folds. They asked Stephen to encouraging people to donate to the the temple building fund, and he refused. In many congregations today, Stephen type leaders are viewed with suspicion.


The other thing political leaders often fail to see is the briefness of their current situation. In a few decades, the Romans will destroy Jerusalem. In a short while, it won’t matter who was certified, approved, ordained, or given an advance degree from Harvard. The first century religious leaders of that place, were given a brief moment on the stage of world history. Crowds from all over the world came to Jerusalem to worship in the temple and celebrate the festivals. How these elders treated those strangers could make a real difference in the propagation of healthy spirituality and koine love. These stone throwers didn’t see the gift that they had been given.


This is why St. Stephen’s vision is so meaningful. He sees Jesus who is the lord of human history. He sees the one who has given each of us our unique giftedness to be a blessing to the world. Our time will pass quickly. The organizations that we have joined will fade away. Nothing remains, but the good that we have done. 

Vision and (mystical) visions are connected
Easter 5
Rep Metcalfe is seeking to impeach the PA Attorney General Kane for failure to enforce DOMA styled legislation

The recent misbehavior of Pa. Rep Daryl Metcalfe (Butler-Republican) has prompted me to devote today’s blog to the following to the letter I recently sent to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. I think you will notice how theological reflection should influence political opinion. When the church stays out of politics, both are harmed:

Dear Editor

    A decade ago, I was a middle of the road minister performing my duties in full support of my denomination’s and Pennsylvania’s stance against gay marriage. Three things changed my thinking:

    I did a thorough study of the scriptures and came to realize that gay bashing and the humiliation of those who are transgendered has no support in the Gospel. I read the relevant passages in their context. I now believe that today’s church should stand in solidarity with the LGBT community. I find myself uncomfortable with bigoted people, such as Rep. Metcalfe, who espouse a very narrow reading of both the secular law and the holy writ.

    Second, I began to see the issue as one of civil rights. It is hard to defend a policy that affords a people equal protection under the law, but denies them something as basic to human dignity as the freedom to marry whom they choose. In a similar way, I cannot say to a gay person, you are free to come to my church, but I won’t accept you into a full fellowship or perform all my pastoral duties for you. When I require other people to be like me, I misuse my authority.

    Third, the demographics on who supports gay marriage and who opposes it, falls clearly along age lines. This is a case where the old need to learn from the young. Rep Metcalfe may hold the gavel today, but this will soon pass. 

   Rev. Bill Kemp

additional author: 
Pittsburgh Post Gazette - May 8, 2014
Psalm 23

v1) I have proven myself incapable of distinguishing between what I need and what I want. The Master lays down for me nutritious food and clear water. I beg for table scraps, wolf them down, and barf it all up on the carpet. I root through the garbage, I drink from the toilet. In spite of all this, the Master loves this shepherd.


v2-3) Our friendship has been formed by many walks. It is in going out into the world that I have come to know my Master’s will. He leads me around dangers and across busy streets. He seems to know both the destination and the lessons I need to learn on the way. He knows when I need to rest, or take a drink. He always has a bag handy for when I poop. He waits patiently for me and teaches me to wait for him.


v 4) I don’t think about death. I know that my Master’s life will go on much longer than mine. I simply hope that he will remember me. The Master has disciplined me when I’ve needed it. He has guided me when I have been anxious. In fact, he has never failed at this. I am comforted. I have the strength to face the unknown.


v5) When the Master has his friends over, they sit at table and give thanks for bread and wine. They pass the dishes of food around the table. They share. This is another thing beyond my comprehension. There are dogs in the neighborhood that I hate. I have fought. When I am hurt, he takes me to the vet and binds my wounds with salve. I know that he wants me to be more like him, but I am just a dog.


v6) Once, I was a stray and then I did time in the Animal Shelter. Since my Master has found me, I have known goodness and mercy. I plan to stay close to my Master all the days of my life, and hope to see him again when I cross over into the unknown.

Easter 4
HDR involves running multiple digital photos through a computer

    Back in the 1960s I learned that if you wanted to do ‘real’ photography, you had to learn to think like Ansel Adams. He was a perfectionist who carefully measured and noted the tone values of each scene into his notebook before snapping a photograph. He hiked with a huge, 8x10 camera, into the mountains in order to capture Yosemite at sunrise. He mixed his own chemicals and spent hours with each negative in the darkroom until he had the perfect print. I wouldn’t hesitate to call him the greatest photographer of the twentieth century. But today, teenagers with iPhones routinely capture better photographs.

    When you spend your lifetime mastering a traditional craft, it’s easy to resent those who come along with today’s technology and capture beauty with ease. Those who play pipe organs often criticize the use of contemporary music in the church. Preachers who diligently read their theologically perfect sermons from a manuscript resent today’s emphasis on relevant narratives told in active voice. Our whole investment in denominational hierarchy is being challenged by the emerging church movement.

    Last month, I went to the neighborhood photo club and heard two comments that challenged my stodgy heart. First, the president of the photo club said that if Ansel Adams was alive today, he’d be loving today’s technology. Great people don’t say, “We’ve got to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them.” Ansel Adams was a great man; even in his eighties, his mind was flexible and accepting of new ideas. Second, a professor of photography at the local art school stated that today’s digital techniques (particularly HDR), allow our photographs to replicate the way the human eye actually sees a scene. Our eyes constantly scan and capture a wide range of tone values. Film can only capture a narrow range. Today’s digital cameras can capture multiple images that are then combined in the computer to create a final picture or video that is more true to the human experience.

    What’s the take away? If you want to be authentic in your Christian witness, learn to embrace change. Ansel Adams would. Today’s church can also.

additional author: 
Photo credit Michael Steighner, MDSimages
Get creative when you pack

My mother has a suggestion from her mother concerning the comforting of cats. Many pets find moving to a new house to be traumatic. So when grandma moved, she always coated the cat’s paws with butter. The animal would spend the time in the car licking her self clean instead of fretting. It would be nice if there were similar procedures for the humans in transit during a clergy move.


With that in mind, here are eight thoughts on clergy family moves:


  1. Start to pack the day after you publicly announce that you will be moving, not the day before. Some clergy can’t sit on their hands. The moment they decide they want to leave, they begin to do things that tip people off to the fact a move is coming. This damages the clergy person’s effectiveness and may hurt the pastoral role for the next person. Laity who discover the  stash of boxes before the announcement may think, “What’s wrong with us that he or she’s so anxious to leave?”
  2. Start to pack the day after the announcement. Don’t procrastinate! To have a healthy good bye, you must intentionally send two messages; 1) that until the week of the move, you are their pastor, and 2) your departure is irreversible. You deliberately show your enthusiasm for your next place of work by packing one or two boxes a day. Against this backdrop of an inevitable change, you express to each congregational member the gratitude and Christian love you continue to have for them as individuals. You release them into the care of their next pastor, without drawing comparisons between this church and where you will be going.
  3. Even if your move isn’t announced until the beginning of June, there is still time for an orderly transition. Trust the system. Avoid the impulse to act quickly. If you need to triage, realize this; what ever you failed to put in order or left behind in the church office, will sort itself out over the months to come. What you failed to do to help your family move all their possessions, may never get put right.
  4. Plan carefully for those with special needs in your family. Children under three may need to be farmed out to grandma during the move. Children between three and twelve will be very sensitive to your level of anxiety. They will need to see you handling the move in an emotionally healthy way. You and your spouse are role models for them in how to handle life’s  transitions.
  5. You, as the clergy person, must realize that your spouse and teenagers have established their own lives in this town and have a right to request special arrangements for their transition. For teens, this might mean a set of planned return trips, vacation time with old friends, or remaining behind for their senior year in high school. Occasionally, your spouse’s needs will be in conflict with the way things are done in your conference. In those times, remember that you don’t have to live with your bishop.
  6. The hard part about moving is that it brings to the fore our attitude about stuff. All material possessions have a certain value in dollars and cents, or do they? It may not be necessary for you to cart your beloved library to the new place. Reference materials are available online and ebooks rule. Recognize that you and your spouse are likely to have a different attitude about many shared possessions. “Will it move?” conversations need to be held early and often.
  7. Use Thrift Shops as furniture buffer zones. Be generous in dropping off what you don’t really need and shouldn’t move. Use the thrift shops of the next town to buy temporary furniture, that you can replace with more carefully sought items as you have time.
  8. And finally, back to the cat. Think ahead as to where the pet will be during the move. A kennel or friend’s house may be a better place for both of your sanities. Don’t have unrealistic preconceptions on their ability to, or not to, adapt.
additional author: 
Photo credit: Ellen Bunnell
1 Peter 1:3-9

A while back there was a song by Bob Carlisle which went; "We fall down, we get up... and a saint is just a sinner who falls down and gets up.” In I Peter 1, we are reminded of the three consequences of Easter: Eternal Life, Living Hope, and Glorious Joy. Our celebrations on Easter tend to focus on Eternal Life, because that is the ‘big sell’when presenting Jesus to our secularized, unbelieving, world. But to our friends, family, and even ourselves, Hope and Joy might be the harder sell. All three Easter consequences, have a “we fall down, we get up” quality.


Living Hope: My Father loved to play chess when he was a boy. He was good at it.  This made it hard for him to find anyone to play him. He had a sister named Betty. To get Betty to play chess with him, he invented a new rule. The rule was, whenever Betty was losing, she had the right to stop the game and turn the board around and play the winning side. Part of what makes hope alive for Christians is the way we get to turn the tables on our defeats. We don’t go to church because we are good at life. We go because we are losing and need God’s grace to turn the tables on life. Where we are failing, we find forgiveness. When we are alone, we find fellowship. Sometimes the support for life comes in strange and mystical ways, from God directly. Other times it comes as the person beside us in our Sunday School class. 


Like my father being good at chess, we all know that God is good at holiness. Most people give up on playing that game. God, on Good Friday, turns the table - gives us Betty’s Rule - and lets us apply it to our own losing position on holiness. This becomes living hope, as we renew our interest in living significant, loving, and godly lives.


Glorious Joy: The book of 1st Peter didn’t get around to being written until thirty years (or some say 60 years) after the first Easter. How could you in 60 AD. (or 90 AD) know that Easter really happened or that it had any significant consequences? There are all these stories about Jesus rising from the dead, and supposedly, giving us eternal life. How do you prove it? I tell you what you do; you get on your sneakers and you sneak up on some Christians. You look in through the window, and you watch them at their meals, at their worship, and in their daily life. If they seem solemn and sad, then you know Jesus is either dead or of little consequence. If they mumble along, repeating Jesus’teachings, but not finding any joy in them, then these people are just blowing on the embers of a has-been teacher. 


I remember taking philosophy in college, and we studied Plato. Plato was a great man. Everyone should read Plato. It was still, sometimes hard to keep awake in class. I had a good teacher, and it took all of his jokes and creativity just to breathe a little life into the words of this dead man. Plato is long dead, if some of you didn’t get the memo. Jesus is alive and if you look through the window at Christians, and they are having fun together. They read his teachings over and over, as if the words themselves are alive. What we find, and what we need to advertise to the world outside, is that Jesus’words are so alive that even a poor reader can repeat them to good effect. Even a bad preacher, can share with his or her congregation the glorious joy that is to be found in them.

Spring Flowers speak of Hope, Joy, and Eternal Life
Easter Day2
Matthew 28:1-10
John 20:1-10

There is strange contrast between Matthew’s telling of the first Easter and John’s. For John, seeing the miracles of Jesus requires faith. In each of John’s so called ‘signs,’ two people stand side by side seeing the same thing, and one believes and the other doesn’t. Like the wedding of Cana, the servants who pour the water that has become wine, believe and see. The master of the feast doesn’t see and thinks that some strange trick has been done, causing the best wine to come last. So John tells every miracle, dividing the seeing and believing from the merely confused. But in Easter, which is the grand conclusion, John gives us two people who see nothing, and yet, both believe.


Matthew does the exact opposite. He gives us an account of Jesus’ resurrection that is literally earth shaking. People have no choice. They are overwhelmed by the power and beauty of the risen Christ. This past year, I read a book containing the accounts of the men who witnessed the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Even though most of them believed the bomb would work and produce a certain devastation, they were stuck dumb and awed to their souls by the new reality. Oppenheimer, when he had recovered his ability to speak, reached into the Hindu scriptures to express how shaken he was, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one,” and then later, more famously, “Lo, I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.”


If I had been there, I might have quoted Matthew’s account of the resurrection, “Suddenly there was a great earthquake… [the angel’s] appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.” The atomic bomb was like an angel of death, ushering us into a new reality. The re-appearance of Jesus on Easter Day was, I believe, preceded by a similarly awesome earthquake and angel of life. Those direct witnesses had no choice as to whether or not to believe. There is a very real need, in the face of all the technological hype and hollywood hoopla of our modern era, to go back to a reality that strikes us dumb.


This is why, I’m gravitating towards Matthew’s account this year. I also like Grunewald’s resurrection painting from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1516). If I was planning worship, I would do John’s account at Sunrise, telling people that it is precisely our willingness to chant out “He is Risen” to the gray, empty, morning air, that makes us Christians. But, at 11 o’clock when there are trumpets, lilies in bloom, and choirs that sound like angels, I would do Matthew and remind people that it is not about us. There is a new reality afoot that should strike us dumb. Whether we believe it or not, Jesus has conquered death.

The experience of Easter should overwhelm us
Easter Day
Holy Week
Sometime those who stay behind have the biggest transition

There was a time when most pastoral moves were easier on the congregation than on the clergy family. Denominational officials used to be able to handle pastoral calls and appointments as a game of musical chairs; Alice leaves seminary and goes to church A, Henry leaves church A and goes to the slightly bigger church B, Kim leaves church B and goes to a position in the denomination’s head office. Note that in the past, change meant change in pastors. Today change means new roles and new relationships for both parties. While you, as the pastor, are praying and prodding yourself and your family through the mess of moving, your parishioners may be preparing for an even more challenging change. What should your role be in this? How can you help?


Consider the following situations:

  • The congregation’s financial situation means that they will be served by a bi-vocational and/or un-ordained person after you leave.
  • The congregation is to be “yoked,” or put into a newly formed charge after you leave. Even if the church has been on a circuit before, the circumstances of the new alignment might pose significant changes in the availability and role of the next pastor.
  • The next pastor may not be of the gender, age, and/or race, that the congregation was expecting. A disability or clergy family issue might collide with the comfort zone or prejudices of significant lay leaders. 


If you are the departing clergy there are four things you must do:

  1. First, do no harm. Resist the urge to agree with people who say that their needs won’t be as well met in the future. Don’t sabotage the next pastor.
  2. Second, don’t dismiss the concerns and fears that people share. If you trivialize the issues that people raise, you will force their discussion underground. Your role is to be therapeutic and transparent. People may say things that reflect their own prejudices. Instead of condemning them, help them to consider alternate view points. When I have prepared congregations to receive female clergy, I have asked them to tell me why they think a woman would be less capable. Often, people’s objections sound better in their heads than they do when spoken outright. Then, I have shared with them that over half of the graduates from seminary are female. If the Holy Spirit is raising these people up, who are we to say, ‘not in my neighborhood.’ Finally, I have told personal stories of the women clergy who have ministered to me and how some of the clergy colleagues that I admire the most are women.
  3. Third, speak about healthy transitional process. This means telling people that letting go and loss are key components of every wilderness journey. You can’t get to the promised land without leaving Egypt. During the transition, the process of discussing and making decisions is more important than anyone decision. There will be changes in lay leadership following the change in pastors, both from people choosing to pull back and from new people being invited to step up. Assure them that in time, the transition will end and the new will begin to feel normal.
  4. Fourth, provide transitional resources and leaders to guide the process. The PPRC should form a small Transition Task Force, with key church leaders, trustees, and people gifted at building bridges and communicating with the congregation. Identify who the key leader will be for guiding the transition after you leave. In the past, this would be the DS. Today, with all the changes happening, you may need to look for an outside transitional consultant. 
Matthew 26

Judas is given a specific amount, thirty pieces of silver. Jesus is the most unquantifiable presence in our lives. In the passion story, irony drips blood. We often trade the invaluable for the known quantity. We leave open ended grace and head for the certainty of written doctrine. We trade mercy for law. We trade the joy of seeking for the security of our life with the 99 in the fold. We move from being children of a heavenly father who owns the sheep on every hill, to the employees of an institution that provides us with a weekly allowance. We take our thirty pieces of silver and walk away from the mystery of what lies beyond door number 3.


I’ve been hearing a lot about church splits these days. The story goes like this, the denomination loosens one of its policies. The people go to their local priest or pastor and say, “Didn’t we always believe X-Y-Z?” The only real answer to this question is, “We are not in the ‘certainty’ business, we are in the ‘seeking’ business.”  An oil firm may have a division devoted to exploration. If the management puts a production quota on these geologists, neither the division nor the company will last long.


If you start at the beginning of Matthew 26, the order of events is this:

  • Chief priests decide to kill Jesus 
  • Jesus gets anointed with Messianic implications in Bethany (Literally, the House of Poverty) 
  • Judas takes the 30 pieces of silver
  • Jesus speaks about his betrayal as an intimate act   

… At some point in the middle of this sequence, Palm Sunday takes place. 


Matthew presents Palm Sunday back in Chapter 21, but does a literary loop-back here in order to deepen the sense of horror and responsibility surrounding what Judas did. On Palm Sunday (Chapter 21), we see Jesus as the King of Love. In the chapters in between, he is the Teacher from God. In Matthew 26, he is the object of our betrayal. In concentrating the Judas plot line in Chapter 26, Matthew is trying to help us see the connection between the extravagant anointing of Jesus by an unknown woman and Judas’ decision to jump ship. There is a point in our religion when it makes sense to follow Judas and take the known quantity.


We have a choice, that’s what Palm Sunday is about. On one side is the crazy lady who pours out a gallon of perfume to show her love. Beside her is our teacher who answers every question with another question. Those who stand with these people have a very uncertain future. On the other side is Judas. He stands with respected, educated, religious authorities who have a clear policy to cover every issue. They have in their hands a secure retirement and a prepaid burial plot. Which do you choose?


One of the passion plays that I wrote has an offering being taken in the middle to defray the costs of the production. Four soldiers stand before Judas with the metal offering plates. Judas counts from one to thirty, dropping large silver dollar coins into the empty plates. The soldiers then go out to collect an offering from the audience. They have spears in their right hands, so the donations are always generous. They kid with the audience, saying that the offering is being taken now in case people don’t like how the play ends. Better to be safe and get the money up front.


The choice is not just about greed, but certainty, security, and being right
Lent 6
Moonrise over Hernandez by Ansel Adams, 1941

In the dark places of our lives, exhaustion gives way to self pity. Our desire to have the time and resources to accomplish what we want becomes a road block in the way of doing what we can. Our demand for always, as in, ‘he always should be there for me,’ or ‘she always forgives me this,’ or ‘I always get to have…,’ blinds us to current reality. We want our lives to be a perfect fairy tale and can’t adapt to the pervasive presence of mess in the story that God has cast us to act in. We no longer see the beauty in this chaotic moment of life, or the hope that lays beyond death.


Until I read his autobiography, Ansel Adams was for me the image of control, order, and dedication to perfection. He had a methodical approach to his darkroom, mixing his own chemicals and carefully making notes on every print. Yet, the most influential incident of his childhood was the great San Francisco earthquake. The sudden event maimed and killed people that he knew. He watched his mother organize relief efforts for the neighbors. Their yard became a squatters camp for the homeless. Ansel became a generous person, well known for his willingness to teach others what he had learned about the American landscape and photography.


Ansel Adam’s most famous picture, Moonrise Over Hernandez, was taken as night was falling. Ansel was driving back, hungry and tired, from a futile day of seeking images to help the New Mexico tourism board rebrand its hard scrabble landscape as ‘The Land of Enchantment.’ The picture shows the moon rising over a disheveled cemetery. In spite of his exhaustion, Ansel saw the beauty of it. The low setting sun briefly illuminated an old church in the background. Ansel didn’t have his 35mm Contax handy. He couldn’t just roll down the window and take an Instagram. He stopped the car and pulled out his heavy 8x10 camera, meanwhile calculating the exposure in his mind because his light meter was lost in the mess. He quickly set up his tripod on top of the car to get the right perspective. He had time to make just a single exposure before the light was lost.


I tell this story, because I am convinced that perfectionism often gets in the way of greatness. Our desire to have exactly what we want when we want it, blinds us to unexpected beauty. Practice, control, craftsmanship, are things that make it possible to perform well in life. But when we get cranky because we don’t have time to ‘do it right,’ we miss the moment. Seeing current reality, even when we are exhausted, requires being spiritually attuned. We have to forgive ourselves and show mercy to the people and events that mess with our plans. To find beauty in a poor cemetery, a darkening landscape, and in the feeble light of the moon, requires one to renounce perfectionism. 

John 11:1-45

We don’t know when Jesus begins his friendship with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. I suspect (and have written it into my novel, “Bethany’s People”) that they’ve known each other since before Jesus was in ministry. John’s Gospel has Jesus going frequently to Jerusalem; and Jesus doesn’t go as a tourist. He seems to know the place like a native. Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem. It was Jesus’habit to stay there. 

    This is a poor village, and Lazarus’family connects with Jesus on a gut level. They know the disparity between the rich and prestigious, in their upper quarter of the city, and those who live near the dung gate or out on edge of the Negeb in Bethany (House of Poverty). Jesus did his ministry in Galilee just outside the posh Tiberias, but never going inside the place.

    Such friendship precedes faith. You have to believe that Jesus shares your pain before you can believe that he is Messiah. Many people have a fact-based, I-believe-it-because-I-was-taught-it, belief in Jesus. The Gospels never show Jesus asking for this kind of belief. He instead, looks for those who will be intimate with him. The reason we have communion as frequently as we do, is because friends eat together. Wedding services have ritual to represent this fact, both in the cutting of the wedding cake and in the serving of communion. Martha cooks, and Jesus eats there as often as he can.

    It is the known friendship of Jesus with the Bethany people that makes his going there dangerous during the weeks before his passion. “If we go to see Lazarus, we will all die with Jesus,” Thomas soberly reflects. This is a high stakes friendship.

    It is in the context of this friendship that Martha verbally slaps Jesus on the face. In John 11:21, she says, “If you had been here…” Only friends and spouses say the ‘where were you’in this way. It is the deep hurt of someone with high expectations. This is the friendship that precedes real belief.

    Those who take Jesus into their darkest experiences, and even risk yelling at him when he fails to meet their expectations, are brought to the place where they can believe.

    Jesus asks Martha to believe that he can conquer death. This is the one thing we all want to believe. You hit pause at this point in the scripture. Do I believe this? Without Jesus, we simply die. With Jesus, there is a reboot. We die in hope. We rise because He is the resurrection.

    Jesus asks Martha to put this new found faith into practice. Martha is the one, as head mourner, who must order the stone to be rolled away. Lazarus has been dead for four days and must stink. Martha could have said, “No. We’ve had enough pain already. We don’t need to make a public spectacle of ourselves by opening Lazarus’stinking tomb.”  Instead, she believed Jesus. Would you?

Friendship precedes Belief
Lent 5
Shift happens - do we practice good process in it?

I often repeat the motto, ‘In a transition, the process is always more important than any one result.” For example; If you are moving your family to another city, you may think it is important to pack your glassware so that your cups don’t chip. In reality, the process of getting everyone in the family to make the transition, have their concerns recognized, and feel positive about the move, is more important. Surrounding any result we wish to achieve in a transitional period, there is a greater process. Sometimes by sheer will power and the cunning manipulation of others, we achieve our desired result. Often we fail in the process to establish relationships and procedures that we can live with in the future.

    Consider the 16 year old boy who wishes to have a driver’s license. His parents inform him of certain requirements; he must faithfully complete household chores, keep his grades up, and get a summer job to pay for gas. For months, the boy can think of nothing but how much better his life will be with a driver’s license. He signs up for driver’s education and begins lurching his way through actually driving a car under adult supervision. He goes to the test, thinking he knows all that he needs to know, and fails it twice. When he finally gets his license, he will say that this end result was everything. In actuality, the character lessons he learned from the process will prove much more valuable. The education that he has received by doing the process may save his life and benefit countless others. 

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the story of Jonah. In the third chapter, the people of Nineveh enter into a process of prayer and fasting in order to save their city. When the forty days are up, and there’s been no divine judgement, they go on their merry way. Neither Jonah, nor the people of Nineveh, seem to consider that the process of prayer and fasting might be the real lesson. I don’t think God invented prayer for us to get the results we want. If the people of Nineveh had valued the process, their city might be here today.

    Prayer is an essential aspect of any healthy transitional process. Through fasting and wilderness prayer experiences, we learn to focus, not on results, but on relationships, spiritual principles, and legitimate process.

    There is an old (and slightly new age) saying:

“No matter where you go, there you are.”

    When you get to where you are moving to, or when you complete the next major life transition that befalls you, will you have added to your tool box of life skills some spiritual processes that will help you to be a better person?

John 9

The story of Jesus and the Blind Man in John 9, is very ‘John.’ It’s funny and deep. Like the stories of the Cana Wedding (expectations), Nicodemus (rebirth), the Woman at the Well (understanding), it plays with a one word spiritual theme, in this case blindness. Like some super-Socrates, John crafts the dialogue so that we come to see that we don’t really see what we think we see about the spiritual theme. I remember reading this passage in seminary and for the first time, I got John. I had read his gospel many times without noticing that each thing Jesus says is misinterpreted and that leads to someone asking a stupid question. The answer to the stupid question goes way beyond what the person’s (or the reader’s) capability to grasp spiritual things. In the end, John tells us that you can’t see Jesus unless you are really ready to see Jesus.

    The pharisees ask the formerly blind man to rat Jesus out. The man responds by telling his direct experience. They respond by telling the man all the things their great learning has taught them about people like Jesus. The blind man says, “I only know what I see.” 

    On one level, it makes perfect sense that a person born blind would focus on the moment by moment experience of his senses. The fact that our eyes are working every waking moment, makes us blind to the actual experience of seeing things. We look for what we expect, rather than what is. We are blinded by what we know or have learned. We don’t see what we are seeing right now. We live in the past or the future instead of the current moment of experience. Our assumptions about people and things blind us to current reality.

    Going to the next level, this story is also about enlightenment. Those who have sat under Buddha’s bodhi tree, or been reborn like Nicodemus, or been rescued from demons, like Mary Magdalene or the man who was Legion, see the world differently. One might also mention Plato’s story of the cave, but those who aren’t enlightened hate that story. Both Jesus and the former blind man are victims of mistaken identity. Those who are enlightened in this world will be mistaken for nuts.

    Then there’s Jesus, who everyone is talking about, but nobody is seeing. It is amazing how much Jesus talk we can have in the church without dealing with the reality of our day to day experiences of him. When we wake up in the morning, is Jesus helping us to see this day and live it fully? Are we able to be Jesus in our love for the person we are looking at in the mirror? Are we able to take that honest acceptance of people as current reality and carry it into our relationships with those whom we have previously found to be difficult? Can we live without prejudice? Can we speak to our kids, spouse, or neighbor without judging them for past failures or weighing them down with future expectations? Can the kingdom of God be in us, the way the gift of sight is now in this formerly blind man?

We are rarely as blind as when we look in the mirror
Lent 4
You may have more options if you do more research

Straw Polls are meant to gauge opinion in order to see if an idea has enough popular support to go forward. In times of transition, however, they can get us into serious trouble. Say, you are in moving to a new leadership situation or pastoral appointment. Early on, you will run into something that the outgoing leader or current pastor instituted that seems unpopular. You weigh in and say, “That’s something we should reconsider.” Before you know it you’re conducting a straw poll and finding seven or eight people in agreement with your first impression. Here’s where you get in trouble:


  1. Decisions are made by one of three methods: Authority (you choose), Majority (Vote of all eligible and present), and Consensus (also know as discernment). Healthy decision making process is one that uses the appropriate method. Straw Polls appear to use the Majority method, but are really subject to you acting as an Authority. You are the one who judges the results of the Straw Poll and declares them valid. This introduces confusion into your leadership. Soon, people don’t know what things you’ll run through channels, what things you’ll act by fiat on, and which items will be decided by your chosen inner circle.
  2. The Straw Poll sample size is usually too small and will lack diversity. The parliamentary process of alternating speeches from those for and those against, ensures that the people closest to the microphone don’t become a lopsided sample of the whole body. The only way to insure that those whom you are listening to a fair representation of public opinion is to intentionally seek out those who would speak against the change. Straw Polls rarely do this.
  3. Straw Polls are often done before all of the facts are in. Do you know why the old policy was put into place? Could the situation look different at different times of the year? What are the personal interests of those who are urging you to take this Straw Poll? Will you be stepping into an invisible conflict?


In a period of transition, don’t take a Straw Poll!


For Clergy making a move to a new situation, this means a one year moratorium on casual decisions. For the six months prior to the move, don’t get lazy. Don’t allow a few available folk make a decisions that should be made by the whole council or some other appropriate committee. For the first six months in the new place, intentionally run every thing through proper channels. Ask yourself, should this action be decided by Authority (you choose), Majority (the Vote of those on a committee), or by Consensus (using an intentional discernment process). The leadership style you demonstrate now will be one that set up your ministry for either years of conflict or fruitfulness that abides beyond your tenure. 


This warning goes along with the first rule of a healthy transition:


In a period of transition, the process is always more important than any one result.

John 4:5-42

There’s nothing churchy about Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. It takes place outdoors and on the road. We know the location, but the importance of the place is in its current insignificance. The well is mostly empty. The disciples, who act like the ushers at the back of the church handing out bulletins and taking attendance, are gone. The crowd is absent. There are no rules, no social protocol. Just Jesus and this woman. Anyone who takes this text and tries to say something from it in support of institutional religion, or to get something done in their church, is doing the gospel great harm.

    Jesus knows just the right thing to say to this woman to prepare her for spiritual transformation. He asks her to bring her husband. There is something in each of our lives that acts as a hinge. For some people its money. For others its status or the position they hold in their career. Still others are spiritually shut down because of childhood traumas or past violence. For this woman, the door that needed to be swung involved her relationship with men. Since the issue is between this woman and her God, John throws a veil over the specifics. He says simply that she has had five husbands and is living with a sixth. I’m sure that the conversation she had with Jesus included much more than what we have the right to know (see John 4:29).

    Part of what we hope for in our spiritual walk, and particularly in Lent, is this kind of confidentiality. There is a mixture of shame, guilt, and uncertainty for each of us surrounding the spiritual hinge point(s) of our life. What we need to get to is that place where we are honest to Jesus and we, in turn, hear his acceptance. This is essential.

    The woman, not Jesus, attempts to shift the conversation back to institutional matters. She asks, “Where is the right place to have a church, which denomination should it be, and how many candles belong on the altar?”  


    Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  


    How would you say this line in your own words and choosing examples from your own experience? This is a test, only a test. Can you speak without church jargon for a few minutes and tell how you know God as spirit? What moments in your life have resonated most fully with spiritual communion and the true worship of God? How does this incident of Jesus and this Samaritan woman speak to the essential nature of our shared humanity?

    It’s only after there has been sufficient honesty in this conversation about spiritual hinge points, that Jesus reveals his nature as the Christ. How do we get sufficient honesty in our lenten journey and the journey of our people to be prepared to see Jesus as the suffering God on Good Friday?

Nothing Churchy going on here
Lent 3
From where you are... the road has a beginning, middle, and end

Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This fact becomes obvious when you are stuck listening to someone who can’t tell a story. It’s not just that the order of events gets mixed up in bad stories, it’s that things don’t happen when you need them to happen. Good story tellers begin with something that hooks your attention. They develop plot and character in the middle. They end with a memorable conclusion. 


When you go through major change in your life, you want your story to be a good story. Too often, our transitions proceed chaotically. They begin with events that don’t hook our spiritual attention and prayer life. “We’re moving to Sheboygan,” you suddenly say to your family. Have you begun this transition well? The middle stuff of packing and saying goodbye is often done without much attention to the individual needs of the people involved. How does this life event fit in with the character of your life and the vocation you have from God? Finally, when it ends, will you be in a good place emotionally, spiritually, financially? There is an end to every transitional period; the children of Israel do eventually leave the wilderness. If you intentionally do transition as a process, though, the chances of your life change having a meaningful conclusion are greatly enhanced.


Change happens to us whether we want it to or not. Major changes in our lives always have components in which we are at the mercy of others. In even the best planned move to Sheboygan, there are things that are out of your control. We fret about the unplanned and the undesirable. We miss the fact that 63% of what happens to us in every transition is under our control. OK. I made that statistic up. What if the actual figure for your current life change were half, or 35%, or 10%; would you be justified in having a pity party and refusing to take ownership for your own decision making process? What if you actually had control over 90% of the outcomes of this transition, would you be justified in behaving like a perfectionistic prima donna?


It is important that you put the beginning, middle, and end, of your transition on a generous timeline. In the hypothetical move to Sheboygan, the beginning starts when you seriously contemplate a move. Critical issues in the beginning include: confidentiality, discernment process, vocational self-understanding, trust, big-picture overviews. We often don’t have a choice over where our transition story begins. It is important that we slow down and pay attention to the critical elements listed. Have we engaged all the spiritual resources that we will need for this move?


The middle is the active, part here/part there, think I’m going to lose my mind, part of the story. Critical issues include: making a good first impression, your relationship to authority(s), accepting loss, identifying what is new, exploration, financial concerns, having fun, and making lists (managing details). You need to intentionally plan for oasis moments in the middle of the wilderness.


The end extends until you are settled into your new stage of life. The transition to Sheboygan should become a memory, with a healthy conclusion to its chaos and uncertainty, about six months after you arrive. Critical issues in the end game are: developing new relationships, leadership style, vision setting for the next stage, collaboration. This phase shouldn’t be thought of as a honey-moon where you try to get your way. Instead, it is a time where good habits are formed and the style of your leadership put on display.


Thinking about transitional process as a series of ordered steps, helps us navigate major changes of life. Like so much in life, managing major change is a ‘learn as you go’ affair.


John 3:1-17

I’m willing to bet that you weren’t born alone. When you came into this world, there was at least one other person in the room, probably your mother. The room, in fact, was likely to be quite crowded, but the person who really mattered at the moment of your birth was your mother. She was in that moment, truly indispensable. The same thing needs to be said about spiritual birth. When a person comes to themselves and given the opportunity to find fulfillment in this world and hope for the one to come, they are never alone. There is at least one other person in the room, usually God.


Even in the church, we forget this mystery. When we tell our own birth stories, we often forget to mention the obvious, that our mother was radically involved in our birth experience. My son was the first in a series of seven or eight births that took place that night in the local hospital. The nurses and doctor were so busy that by the time morning came, they didn’t know our child from Adam. But, his mother did. There are many people who hover over our spiritual life, but only one mother-God.


There are of course, children who are adopted out of their mother’s arms, never to be reunited. Life is, for all children, a process of separation and exploration of their independence. Consider Nicodemus. The man had become so thoroughly enmeshed in the order of Pharisees that his thoughts rarely returned to the singular relationship he had with God. His birth stories spoke about the people who were his teachers and elders in the order, and not the one who gave him birth.


When we hear Jesus commanding Nicodemus to be born again, we shouldn’t think in terms of Nicodemus adopting a new set of beliefs. Instead, he is being called to return to the place where there is only one other person in the room that matters, and that is God. There is a purity and mystery to John 3:1-17. It deserves its place as one of the most quoted passages of the Bible. Our tendency to speak of rebirth as a once in a lifetime decision, however, obliterates its power. The point that Jesus is making, is that God will be the one who is birthing us. When we need it, God will do it again.


I wish that I could give people a formula or process for rebirth. The spirit, however, blows where it wills. The Church has followed in the tradition of the Pharisees in shifting the focus of our birth stories away from God and on to the doctors and nurses that attended our birth. The only way to reverse this illness, is to be born again. Unfortunately, that message may be hard to preach.

Lent 2
See things as a child. Ask "Why?"

I heard a story recently about a young man from Ohio who got amnesia while working on a study fellowship in India. He had an unexpected reaction to an anti-malarial drug and woke up not knowing who he was. He wandered down to the train station where he was eventually taken in by the local authorities. They thought he was drug addled and it was some time before his parents from Ohio were contacted. You may be wondering what all this has to do with fixing your church or transition. In time, the young man considered what had happened to him to be a gift. He was for a brief time able to see new things with new eyes, unencumbered by preconceptions and prejudice.


The young man’s family brought him back to Ohio. Looking through old photographs he jogged back most of his memory, except for much of the previous year. Two interesting things happened. First, he broke up with his girlfriend Ann. She received him back warmly and he found her attractive, but his beginner’s mind and eyes saw their relationship differently. Sometimes the accumulation of life’s events and the things we think that we know, obscure what our soul would see if we were meeting someone for the first time. A little naiveté can save one from entering into a disastrous marriage.


The second thing I found fascinating about the young man’s story was how quickly he returned to India. Even though many of the facts and skills that he needed to fulfill his fellowship grant were lost to him, he was willing to go the second mile for his vocation. Sometimes we need fresh eyes to see our calling in life. He came back to India able to see it like someone who woke up fresh in that land. Second birth seems to be required for us to be truly citizens of two places. This has a lot of significance for Christian theology, but also a practical application for pastors who are called to a new parish.


The concept of having ‘beginner’s mind’ is borrowed from Zen Buddhism. What we remember often gets in the way of what we need to experience in this moment. What we have accumulated in terms of language, skills, prejudices, and habits, may be inappropriate for the new work we need to do in a new situation.


Here are some practical hints for valuing your beginner’s mind and seeing things afresh in a new situation:


  • Learn the three year olds trick of constantly asking ‘why.’ It’s more important that you learn why people do things than for you to get up to speed quickly. 
  • Be a tourist. Ask to be shown the sights. Pretend that you get lost easily (I don’t have to pretend). Ask people tell you where things are, listen for and ask questions that will help you to know community and church history. Discover context and note what people love and hate.
  • Listen more than you speak. Ask people to tell you about themselves and the relationships they have had with other pastors. Be like an amnesiac who doesn’t know your part of the relationship history, because then you’ll discover the hidden expectations of the role you are stepping into.
  • Don’t preach on your first Sunday. Observe how they do worship. Let the lay people lay out the bulletin. If there is communion, participate in it, but position yourself to look in each person’s face as they receive the sacrament (preferably by doing intinction or distribution at the altar).
  • Don’t preach your old sermons. You may go to your notes to save exposition time, but challenge yourself to preach as if you were born into this church. Choose your examples to fit the people of this context; mention their stores, workplaces, and sports teams.
  • Observe how conversation flows at committee meetings. Positional authority (who has which office) and Functional authority (who does which job and has the power to make things happen) are rarely the same in a local church. The list of nominated officers is largely forgotten by the time you arrive in the summer. Try to discover the oral tradition behind each church office, staff position, fellowship group, and volunteer team. Don’t try to run things by the book until you are clear that the book is an improvement in each particular instance.
  • Avoid the phrases; “I’m used to doing things this way,” “At my previous church, we did…,” “I have training in…,” and “let me take care of that, I know how to do it best.” Be the old dog who wants to learn new tricks.
  • Unearth land mines carefully. What people are sensitive about is different here than it was in your previous situation(s).
  • When you learn people’s names, learn one thing about them that doesn’t have anything to do with church.
  • Be intentional about your calendar. Until you are into your third month there, avoid taking on any reoccurring obligations. Don’t be in the same place every third Monday of the month. Keep flexible until you know what your family obligations will be, especially if you have children in school or a spouse seeking new employment.
  • Give priority to fun, get to know you, informal, events in the church and the community. Put district, conference, and all ‘clergy only’ events at a low priority for the first six months.
additional author: 
David McLean, his book “The Answer to the Riddle is Me”
This American Life (NPR, 2010)
Matthew 4:1-11

What an odd choice. Jesus you’ve just been baptized and announced to be God’s gift for humanity; where are you going to go?  Jesus’ answer, “Away from it all.” We live now in a world of constant connectivity. I grew up in a time when if you passed people on the street talking to themselves, you knew they were crazy. Now, if you are simply walking — I mean looking at the world around you and putting one foot in front of another —- people ask you what’s wrong with your cell phone. Information floods in. We refuse to simply be quiet. We contribute our tweets to the chaos. We have become crazy people.


Jesus didn’t need to get away as much as we do. He chose forty days of wilderness. Complete isolation. He had no cell phone reception or wifi. The world lost his wisdom from Facebook for forty days. He heard no one. Even the devil honored this choice of solitude until the last few days. Jesus only needed forty days to reestablish his sanity, how long do you need?


What comes from our constant communication is clutter. You know that closet or room in your house where you just stuffing things for later? This is your soul on constant communication. People are always saying things to you. Even when they don’t have anything to say, you keep listening. And when you listen, where does it go? In one ear and then into that closet which also contains your soul. So you fight back by tweeting the world your every fluffy thought. But when you talk nonsense, a copy is always left behind in your soul closet. It’s like your inner self needs to keep a receipt for every jibber-jabber transaction.


So how do we stop? That’s what Lent is about. Forty days isn’t enough, but perhaps we can discover which closet our soul is stashed in and put our junk elsewhere. This year, don’t do something; sit. This year, don’t give up chocolate; give up constant communication. Establish a space. It may be fifteen minutes each day when we stare out our bedroom window and our cellphone is down the hall on its charger.


What came from Jesus being in the wilderness was clarity. In the end, he knew three things that you and I don’t know:


He knew that because God spoke everything into existence, his word is more important for our daily life than bread. Prayer should be like breathing.


He knew that doing something great, doesn’t make you a great person. Instead of jumping off high buildings or trying to be the perfect parent or running in the Boston Marathon, we should simply be who we are meant to be. Character is everything. The daily walk of being in the moment is a crazy thing to lose.


He knew that spirit is more important than stuff. Look how shallow we have become. We worshipfully tag our Pinterest wish list of clothing, household decor items, cars, and gizmos. Jesus is deep. Hear, Oh Israel. The Lord your God is one. You shall worship Him with all your heart, and mind, and strength, and all of your soul.

This is your soul on constant communication
Lent 1
Homer gives us a way to understand our own transition

Wherever there is transition, it is helpful to objectify your experience by making a story out of it. When Homer told the story of Ulysses' odyssey, he gave his hearers a way to understand their own journeys. A certain healing and wisdom is offered when we see an actor on stage handle issues similar to the drama of our lives. We take a step back. By viewing our experience as a story, we discover its handles and the places where we can manipulate the outcome (hence the positive use of the word ‘objectify’ above). This is true both for clergy and their families as they transition from one ministry setting to another, as well as, for congregations that have a change in leadership, location, or missional focus.


Step 1: Find a biblical story, movie, or novel, that you think resonates with your current experience. You may wish to consider the following examples:

  • David and Goliath - In this transition you may feel like a small person going up against something too big to handle. Like David, you may be asked to wear someone else’s armor or way of doing things. How do you strip to your authentic self? What smooth stones or truths help you to level the playing field?
  • The Hobbit - Has your current situation become too much like the Shire, with its comfort and lack of challenge? How are you different from the others that Gandalf or the bishop is asking to make a similar change at this time? What unique gifts and talents are you discovering in yourself? Is there a ring or an old way of doing things that will become poisonous to you if you hold on to it too long?
  • Ruth - Notice how this woman enters into one transition, from singleness to marriage, but the unexpected ending of that move leads to a greater journey. The story of Ruth is fully understood, only in hind sight.
  • Gone with the Wind - Is your transition beginning to feel epic? Notice that the lack of transparency between the participants in the drama leads to much of the tragedy. What is the role of passion and emotion in your life transition?
  • Jonah - Is there a reluctance in your heart relating to your prejudices about the place where you are called to go? Note the worship Jonah does in belly of the fish (chapter 2) and its pivotal role. How could your transition have a happy ending? Notice that the book of Jonah ends without Jonah becoming any wiser about his calling or life.

As you look at the above, you may notice that there are certain common elements to every narrative of transition. They all have a wilderness-like middle part where things are uncertain. Wilderness can take many forms; it can be a forrest, as in Tolkien’s  Mirkwood, or the sea, or Jonah’s whale, or a demilitarized zone, as it was for Goliath and David. This is the part of the story where we grieve for what we must lose and accept our own dependance upon God. Notice that transitional stories always have unexpected endings. May you live in such adventurous times.


Step 2: Write down all the ways your current experience is similar to the chosen transitional narrative. Repeat this process with other stories, books, and movies, as your transition goes forward. Laugh at what you find funny. Put your story character’s name on a post-it note on your bathroom mirror. Look for hidden wisdom.

Step 3: Now go to those who are with you in this journey and listen as they identify their own stories for this transition. Share. Find ways to support each other in prayer.

Exodus 24
Matthew 17:1-9

I’m tired of Epiphany and looking forward to Lent beginning. This mid-winter season, takes us from the post-Christmas let down, you know, the Flight into Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents, to camping on the mountain with its weird epiphanies. I’m ready to be headed someplace real, like Jerusalem, the Cross, and an Easter Sunrise. It’s in Lent that we do religion. We tell people to fast and give things up. We schedule extra services and do Lenten studies. What Epiphany really lacks is controversy and some theological dogmas like incarnation and atonement. We want more words.


Then Moses brings the people to Mount Sinai and God appears. Jesus climbs a mountain with three of his disciples, and in the night, he is transformed. These Epiphanies are the final exams of a season when we haven’t been paying attention. So much of what is church is packed away after Christmas. People slack off their attendance and complain about the winter. Yet there is something empty and anti-church about these epiphanies. They take place on mountains far from any sacred buildings or large assemblies of people. Jesus doesn’t bring his Torah. The disciples can’t find a plug to charge their Kindle tablets. Into this emptiness, a mystery occurs which neither Moses, nor the disciples have words to talk about. God is other. Our experience of God is not just personal, it is ineffable.


There is a Taoist saying: “Cut doors and windows for a room. It is the holes that make it useful.” 


Looking at Exodus 24 in context helps. Then you notice that Moses going up the mountain really doesn’t have anything to do with the Ten Commandments, which are talked about in Exodus 20. It has to do with experiencing the mind-numbing otherness of God. Note that in spite of the thick cloud, devouring fire, and beautiful floor of lapis lazuli, the people actually saw God and lived (Exodus 24:9-11). Same with the disciples. They saw the reality of Jesus. 


As soon as we come down off of the mountain, we will be in the middle of the stuff of our lives. Religion is expected to fit in a corner at the edge of the real world. So Moses comes down and tells people how to make a little God box (see Exodus 25). Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem with its temple and its form of religion that is the antithesis of who he is.


So the task for this week is to cut doors and windows into our religion, get away from the God-box thing, and to simply be with God. 

Cut doors and windows for a room. It is the holes that make it useful.
Epiphany 7
What would it take for you to love your current situation?

One of my favorite TV shows is Love It or List It on HGTV. The show begins with unhappy homeowners explaining how their current home doesn’t work for their family.  The show has two hosts, a realtor and a contractor, that promise to rescue the family from their housing dilemma in opposing ways. The contractor, takes the lists of complaints the family has about their house, and with a limited budget, sets about to fix each item. The realtor takes the homeowners on a tour of another house which meets all of their expectations and they can afford to purchase. The contractor and the realtor compete to see what the family will choose to do; love their newly remodeled house and stay, or list their home and move into the place the realtor has found. Those of us who have lived in a variety of parsonages get a vicarious kick out of this.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the move you are about to make had the same win-win, solve it in a half hour, TV feel to it? There will be times in your moving process when your situation will feel like the evil, dramatic opposite of Love It or List It. One of the pitfalls of any transition is our tendency to dwell on our own powerlessness. We will talk about our upcoming move as if the things that are un-fixable and the options that are undesirable are dominating the equation.

    Creating a set of ‘Love It’ and ‘Leave It’ lists, however, can help you and your family understand and manage your expectations. The purpose of the following exercise is help you and your family focus on the things that you can change or control, accept what is meant to be, and to be able to prayerfully manage your expectations. In terms of transitional tasks, this exercise relates to the ‘naming of what we have lost’ and ‘the acceptance of the new things.’ 

    Step 1)  This exercise begins with you, the clergy person creating two lists and placing them in a private folder. You may choose to redo this exercise with your spouse and family, but nothing you write today should be written with a desire to explain your feelings to others. It is important in this first step, to turn off that editorial part of your brain which speaks and writes in the hope of changing someone else’s opinion.

    Write a “Love It” list that has a bullet point for each thing that would need to change for you to want to stay in your current situation. If leaving the current situation is something that has already been irrevocably decided, then pretend for the next few minutes that a message has arrived telling you that the move is off and you must stay. Write what makes your heart heavy. What things have to change in order for you to be happy?

    Now write a “Leave It” list. This will be a short list of the things you are hoping for in the next place of ministry. If there is a wish that your next place of service is unlikely to satisfy, be sure to include that with an asterisk beside it. Take a fresh piece of paper and seek to place this list in order of priority; which items do you care about most? Now go back to the items with an  asterisk. What are you doing to compensate for these disappointments? Look at the highest priority items on your list. Which ones are ‘nonnegotiable.’ Why?

    Step 2) On separate pieces of paper, create what you think are the key Love It and Leave It items for your spouse and/or family members (include only those who are making the move with you).  Without telling them what you wrote, ask what they would place as priority items. What are they dreading to leave and looking forward to finding in the next place? How close are your preconceived lists to what they are actually concerned about?

    Step 3) Consider carefully, which, if any, of these items should be shared with the denominational authority(s) involved in this move (District Superintendents). Which, if any, do you need to communicate to your successor? Which, if any, should you share with the leadership of your new situation and in what context will your concerns have the best hearing?


Finally, if any item names a particular individual(s), pray about your relationship with this person. Is there a need to express reconciliation or to intentionally forgive? What are the power dynamics that need to be addressed to prevent problems for either your successor or your ministry in the future situation? Does it help to understand this person as a component of a larger church family system?

additional author: 
Joe Fort
United Methodist Church
Matthew 5:38-48

Everybody loves a baby. Place the cooing thing in most people’s arms and they go mushy at the knees. There’s nothing analytic about it. Then suddenly, the baby has a bowel movement and there’s a choice. Assuming that the kid is not your own, you’ll do the expected thing and hand the smelly infant back to mom. But, Jesus wants you to say, “Where’s that diaper bag? I’ll change him for you.” When Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and going the second mile, he is talking about situations in pre-pampers Israel where there was a clear expectation to do one thing and a seldom used option to do something else. Some one does something hurtful and mean to you. The expectation is to put up a wall, fight back, or walk away. It is not to put yourself in that vulnerable place where they have to relate to you face to face.


In today’s world, it’s rare for someone to ask you to walk two miles. Nobody has asked for my coat lately, and I can’t remember the last time I was slapped on the cheek. When pastors deal with Matthew 5:38-48, they tend to wax historical and provide details like the Roman laws governing how far you had to carry a pack and how much the ancient people hated to use their left hand. I think spending too much time being educated has a way of interfering with the immediacy of Jesus’ message. Throughout the chapter, Jesus speaks about things that would happen everyday to the people he was speaking to. He doesn’t talk about child support, neighbors whose dogs poop on your yard, or robocalls from Rachel about your credit card. But,perhaps you should. It is in the mess of life that we discover the kingdom of God.


Jesus uses the word ‘you’ a lot. In every line, he alludes to expected response to an everyday situation, then he says, “But you must do…” What follows always demonstrates the power of love as a choice. You choose to care for a neighbor’s kid, even when he has a stinky diaper. You hand over money to someone who doesn’t deserve it, rather than going to court. You choose to forgive the unforgivable. In every moment of life, you accept the challenge to do what Jesus would do. Wesleyan people call this, ‘perfection in love.’  It means, love as a choice.


Every time you deal with the Sermon on the Mount, the challenge is to get your listeners to apply it to the people they will encounter in the next few days, as well as, those whom they know by name. The only way to meet this challenge, is to give examples that will happen to your listeners.  Abandon all hope of getting your message from the internet. You know your people. Now speak about their prejudices and failures to love. Don’t tell them another story about a famous preacher or a soldier in WWII. Speak about 2014 and the messy places where you and they live. 


Notice that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not giving a set of universal rules. He is instead, sharing the radical nature of the kingdom of God. It is near to each of us. The challenge of living by love is a day to day thing. I can not tell you how to live your life, but I can example what choosing to love means to me.

Epiphany 7
When clergy and church staff move, they need an exit interview

     Most churches and businesses find it helpful to do exit interviews with employees who are leaving their post for whatever reason. If done with an open attitude, these meetings provide meaningful insights into the health of the organization and spotlight areas of needed change. They also help the departing individual find closure. If you are an exiting church employee or layperson stepping down from a key leadership role, you should request an exit interview. The people you meet with should not just include your supervising committee (PPRC in UMC), but also the other staff and church leadership who understood the nature of your work. You may wish to ask for several separate meetings with differing groups. 

     If you are a clergy person preparing to move to a new parish, having exit interviews is helpful for a number of reasons:

  1. You can request the support and prayers that you and your family will need for the move. Your congregational leaders can hear you state your willingness to provide your prayers and pastoral support for them.

  2. Questions relating to the timing and wisdom of your move can be dealt with in a face-to-face setting.

  3. The congregation will be able to request from you the notes and resources that they need to continue the programs and policies that they have found helpful during your ministry.

  4. Listening for what is left unsaid, will provide you insight into the objectives that you had for this congregational relationship that failed to materialize.

  5. In the final months of your tenure, they are more likely to speak honestly about the key areas where you need to change and develop new skills for ministry. 

  6. You will be able to discuss together the spiritual process of transition and how you each will utilize faith to be open to the new things that God is doing.

    The key to any exit interview is to avoid the adversarial talking points that always accompany major change. Up to this point, you have been weighing the pros and cons of leaving this church position. Exit interviews should be conducted after the appointment has been finalized and there is no going back. You should begin these conversations by stating that this is a holy time of dialogue, not a trial to see if the move is justified. You may feel reluctant to make yourself vulnerable and hear what the congregation has to say to you. Your  own growth as a church professional, however, depends upon hearing what people are willing to say when there are no repercussions. Your exit interview also begins to build the bridge for their relationship with the next person.

    Inviting people to step back and take an objective look at current reality is a key component to this task. With this in mind, here are three important questions for the exit interview:

    1) What things are important for churches everywhere? That is, which values will I need to cultivate in my next position? Are there aspects of the pastoral role that I will need to pay attention to where-ever I go?

    2) What out-side factors need considered for the future of this church? How are changes in the neighborhood, economics, and the policies of the denomination challenging the life of this congregation? Will this change in pastors highlight one of these external factors?

    3) What future do you see God calling this church to? Is this change of leadership sharpening the congregation’s shared sense of vision or are you feeling confused? Are there things that I brought to you or developed during my time here that you hope to continue?


    Clergy often ask what they are allowed to share with their successor. The answers to the above questions will be important for the next person to hear. You may want to contact the current pastor in your new position and see if they will do an exit interview and give you the notes. Asking the above questions first, help diminish the adversarial atmosphere that can interfere with a healthy exit interview.

    When you arrive at your new post, you will want to ask similar questions at your informal entrance gatherings (cottage meetings).  For these meetings, it is helpful to use the format and materials provided in Reality Check 101 Chapter One.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
Matthew 5:21-27
Deuteronomy 30:15-20

In the context of Deuteronomy chapter 30, anger is a strange god. From time to time, perhaps more often than we admit, our relationship with anger becomes religious. Anger goes from being a short defensive emotional state (without encouragement, the adrenal mechanism of anger only lasts about 90 seconds) to being a god that we worship. Every time someone burns our bacon, we have an opportunity to switch religions for a while. We bring an offering; our gift may sacrifice a friendship or destroy our own health. We repeat in public the litany of how we were wronged. When others agree with us, we experience the euphoria of holy communion. We commit ourselves to be regular attendees at the temple of anger. 


In the sermon on the mount, Jesus deals with anger as he makes the great Old Testament commandments relevant to daily life. Anger is intimately related to murder. Anger held past 90 seconds, takes on life of its own, and while we may not think of ourselves as capable of murder, we have only limited capabilities to keep ourselves from doing great harm. Our words may cut like a knife. Jesus stays practical when he talks about anger; you may find yourself in jail or worse. 


Lately, I have been working to assimilate these two truths. In my own life, anger has been an idol and my worship at its altar has come at the cost of my own soul, my own effectiveness as a minister, and as a person in relationship with those that I love. Second, when anger is displayed in public, whether in a church meeting or in a family dinner table discussion, the harm that ensues is always greater than we can calculate. Further, in retrospect I see, that everything that I labeled as righteous anger was, in fact, dumb anger.


The book, “The Cow in the Parking Lot” by Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston is helpful here (pages 7-12 ):


Imagine that you are at the mall on a crowded day looking for a parking space. The lot is nearly full, but in front of a you an elderly person is slowly backing out of a prime space. You wait patiently for them to execute a three point turn. Just as you prepare to enter your space, a young man in a red sports car zooms into it from nowhere. You beep. He gives you an obscene gesture. 


At this point your options are limited. You could leave a note or damage his car. You could stew about it for a long time and tell your friends. Whatever you choose, your only useful action will be to find another parking space.


Imagine the same story with one detail changed. You, again, are waiting for the prime space. This time, as you are ready to drive in, a cow ambles into the space. You beep, she moos. Later you learn that the cow has a habit of doing this every day. She, too, has been waiting for that parking space. 


What remains the same in the two stories is that your only useful action is to go an find another space. What is different, besides the fact that the second gives you a humorous story to tell your friends, is that with the cow, we have no expectation of changing the other person. The people who cause us to lose our temper, tend to be those we judge as needing taught a lesson. No matter how much someone has wronged us, our next useful action usually doesn’t involve them. We have to go find another parking space. Having done that, why is the attitude of the driver in the red sports car any more our responsibility than the attitude of the cow?


Reflecting upon my own life, I find that I have been most dangerously angry when I felt I needed to change someone else. Jesus was rarely angry. He only taught those who came to him and he tended to advocate letting people find their own path. Even when the person who makes us angry is our dependent or related to our vocation, we do well to step back and ask if our emotion and actions are actually helping that person to discover for themselves the right way live. We are rarely as responsible for someone else as our anger god wants us to be. If you love like Jesus did, you do a lot of letting go. 

Book by Scheff and Edmiston has me thinking about Anger
Epiphany 6
United Methodist Pastors move about every four years

The first thing you should do when moving from one area of ministry to another is count to forty. Before entering into his ministry, Jesus spent forty days in prayer and fasting in the wilderness. He set an example for us. Forty, throughout the Bible, is the number associated with making a transition in a spiritual fashion. When Noah and his family were baptized into a new world, it rained for forty days. When  the people of God walked towards the promised land, their GPS said ‘recalculating’ for forty years. When the people of Nineveh were facing certain destruction, a period of forty days was given to them for repentance and prayerful preparation.

    Forty days of guided prayer can help pastors and their families as they prepare for a transition from one place of ministry (or study) to another place of service. It is important to read, ask questions, and reconnect with wise counselors as you contemplate issues like: How do we discern if this is the right move for us? How do we grieve for what will be lost? What changes should we commit to making in our personal and professional lives? How do we remain connected with our loved ones and friends throughout the process? Can we grow in maturity, faith, and effectiveness, over the course of this move?

    You may be still in the ‘what if’ stage of waiting for things to open up for a move, or in the packing stage, or in the I wish I hadn’t done this stage stage. Wherever you are, from this moment count forty days. Through the next month and a half, set aside daily prayer time and schedule other spiritual exercises (fasting, journaling, going on a day-retreat, walking a labyrinth, etc.) to focus on the following:


  • Where am I right now in terms of my relationship with God, my loved ones, and my own soul? Is burnout sapping the energy from my essential relationships? Am I still enthusiastic about my calling into ministry? 
  • Is there affirmation of this move (or my desire to move) from those that I trust? How would I rate my relationship with the denominational authorities involved with this change? Is my faith leading me to be more isolated or more connected?
  • What am I, and those in my household, being asked to let go of? Are my hands, and the hearts of those with me, open to receiving something new and unexpected? How do we deal with our grief and our fears? Note that anxiety, grief, and fear, are three separate emotions and will involve differing paths for each person as they head towards acceptance. 


    When I do premarital counseling, there is a question I always ask, “Are you solving any problems in your life by getting married?” It may sound like a strange question to ask, but it provides opportunity to put out into the open some of the unrealistic expectations the future bride and groom may have about marriage. Some people are driven into marriage by a desire to escape an unhappiness that will continue to haunt them in their new life. A once popular Billy Joel song debated the merits of  single life over living together and concluded, “Sooner or later you sleep in your own space. Either way it's okay to wake up with yourself.” 


    Knowing that it may already be too late to shift gears and not move, ask yourself:


What problems am I trying to solve by making this move?


    Take a deep breath. Pause. For the rest of the forty days, refuse to dwell on the problems you hope to solve. Consider instead, the person you hope to become.

Matthew 5:13-20
Isaiah 58:6-8

Let’s be blunt; I’m not good enough. Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I’ve been doing some reading lately on first century Judaism and am ready to conclude that the scribes, Pharisees, Essenes, and even, the Sadducees, were a lot better folk than the average church going Christian is today. They, at least, sought to know the commandments of God and worked at obeying what they had been taught. This meant fasting, tithing, attending week-long religious celebrations, and setting aside hours each day for prayer. If God grades on the curve, I still fail.


The core commandment of the Old Testament is: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)The grace that God extends to us in Jesus Christ reconnects us with this fundamental law. Through salvation our sins are forgiven and we receive new hearts capable of love. The question remains, “how does our righteousness exceed the religion of Jesus’ opponents?”


Look at the use of the word ‘light,’ both in Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:14-16) and in Isaiah’s (58:6-8).  Manifesting the ‘light’ of God’s love and grace by our love for others is the way our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. Jesus demonstrates this by stating that the great command is to love God with all our heart… (Deut. 6) and “to love our neighbor as our selves.” (Matthew 22:34-39).


This means taking responsibility for the things those around us need. If they are hungry feed them. If they are sick or in prison, visit them. If they are being denied their basic rights and dignity because of race, gender, or sexual orientation, then stand with them in their cause. If poverty has them trapped, then help them find the pathway out of their distress. The prophets of the Old Testament, as well as the great voices of other world religions, knew how to be ‘Light’:


Loose the bonds of injustice.

Undo the thongs of the yoke and let the oppressed go free.

Break the things that bind people to poverty.

Share your bread with the hungry 

and bring the homeless poor into your house.

When you see the naked, cover them. 

Have the kind of conscience 

that prevents you from hiding from your responsibility for all people.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.

(from Isaiah 58:6-8)

Winter Light photo by Bill Kemp
Epiphany 5
He only gets it right about half the time

This week, a ground hog will be pulled out of his hole and see, or not see, his shadow. People from as far south as Atlanta, will want to know if Phil predicts an early spring or six more weeks of winter. The ground hog’s statistics were in the paper today and they were dismal. Over the last ten years, you could spit on a rock and toss it in the air and have a better predictor of the upcoming weather. Fortunately, ground hogs are only good eating when they are young, so there isn’t much interest in shooting old Punxsutawney Phil. I have come to believe that most pastors are equally lousy at predicting the particular  missional calling of the church they serve.


God may be calling St. Paul’s Church to be in serious mission and lead transformation in a particular area of need in the community. The new pastor, however, has decided that the church needs to focus on bringing in new people and improving its metrics (statistics). Another pastor may have a heart for mission, but be serving a dying congregation that needs to transition gracefully into closure. This pastor can’t grasp the vision of how his church could give its building and resources as a legacy gift for mission under his leadership. Another church has both the enthusiasm and flexibility to bridge over the generations and minister to the postmodern world, but the pastor wants to ‘stay the course’ and continue doing what worked in the past. Fortunately pastors, like ground hogs, aren’t good eating when they get old and tough.


The lessons to be learned are:

  1. Pastors and laity need to learn together how to do spiritual discernment. Prayer will reveal, through healthy group process, the primary mission of your congregation. The pastor’s role is to support the shared vision, not to create it. Clergy need to learn how to listen and how to teach listening skills (Reality Check 101 deals with this process).
  2. In the United Methodist Church (this is also true of other denominations) the clergy itinerate, which means they go from location to location telling people what all churches in general are called to do. The laity, on the other hand, locate. They are called to live in the community and discern what is needed in this particular place. God gives half of the local church’s mission and vision to each party and expects us to put the pieces together.
  3. Don’t be afraid to let the facts shoot down your cherished myths. I did the math on Ground Hog’s Day and found that it didn’t connect with reality. If we compare what a church says its doing with what it is doing, we may realize that our current mission statement is a myth. Fixing this involves going back into small groups and prayerfully seeking God’s will for this particular church.
Matthew 5:1-12
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

In a newspaper this week I read that employment has improved so much that by the end of the year some American cites will have a labor shortage and see workers demanding higher wages. This unfortunate situation will be bad for the economy. The above is representative of the wisdom of the world. Those who understand the first two sentences of this blog, will have a hard time accepting the wisdom of the cross or what Jesus was doing when he blessed the poor, those who mourn, the meek, etc. Jesus’ wisdom involved knowing suffering, being willing to serve others, and having a pure love for truth and beauty. The world’s wisdom involves avoiding failure, demanding concessions from those who serve, limiting the truth we tell ourselves or others, and believing that cost determines value (beauty).

I was struck this week by the way the opening of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians parallels Jesus’ opening message to the people of Galilee in the Sermon on the Mount (there is a three fold chord if you look at Luke 4:16-19, Jesus’ sermon in his synagogue). Paul notes that the Gospel of Jesus is understood and received with joy by those of no account in the eyes of the world. It is those who have never had authority in this world, whom Jesus and Paul appoint as the first leaders of the church. Lifting the burdens of the poor and outcast becomes primary for the early church, because it was a task that they understood from experience. The capacity of the first Christians to understand their mission field, be compassionate, and be transparent about what Jesus had done in their own lives, made them effective at evangelism. Jesus and Paul understood the difference between doing things for the poor and doing mission with the poor.

See the Papal document: “The Joy of the Gospel”
Epiphany 4
Kirk (church) Leaders boldly engage the world

Whenever Captain Kirk takes the starship Enterprise out to explore the cosmos he issues a single command, “Engage.”  What follows next is always an adventure. In some episodes frightening alien creatures take over the ship shutting down propulsion and life-support. The captain and crew struggle not only to get essential systems back online, but also to understand what these strangers want and how to reason with them. The captain seeks to open a channel of communication so that he can tell them that mission of the ship is peaceful. If he can engage this alien culture, then perhaps he can build a level of trust which will spare the Enterprise from further attacks and perhaps even initiate a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge. 


Kirk’s name in German means “Church.” I think that church leaders today need to be more like Captain Kirk. What makes Captain Kirk such a good leader is that he really wants to understand the universe. His posture is receptive, not defensive and his inner vision leads him to look beyond the current crisis. Not only is his science officer and communications technician standing near him on the bridge, but the entire ship’s crew is organized with exploration in mind. Further, the physical vessel is outfitted with a wide variety of sensors and probes. “Engage” is not just a command, it is a state of mind.


The church is called by Jesus to engage the world. He says that we are to be in the world, even if we are not to be of it (John 17:15-18). He also tells Peter that the keys to the kingdom are such that the gates of Hell itself will not stand fast against the church (Matthew 16:18-190. The attacks that the church experiences in the world will sometime lead us to think that we need to pull apart and emphasize the disparity between Christian values and those held by the largely non-church-going public. The Bible, however, frames the church’s mission in terms of engagement. We are told, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The book of Acts describes how the early church leadership captained a costly program of active engagement with a sometimes hostile culture. Their mission was not simply to survive, but to explore and to witness. 


Paul famously expresses the scope of his willingness to engage the culture with these words:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.

            (I Corinthians 9:19-22)

Are you underserving and overdressed?

Church members in too many cases are like deep sea divers, encased in the suits designed for many fathoms deep, marching bravely to pull out plugs in bath tubs - Peter Marshal.  When Marshal wrote these words he was addressing the problem of do-nothing-pew-sitting Christians. Now, six decades later, the time has come to apply the overdressed deep sea diver concept to whole congregations. Maybe a third of the churches in America have developed protective policies and resource management skills to the point that they fail to do much good. They have, quite simply, forgotten why Christianity matters. The reason Jesus wants us to make disciples is so that the church can transform the world. Many churches are rich in assets and poor in community transforming mission work. 

    You can have good leadership, functional buildings, and a theologically articulate congregation and still be underemployed for God. This is why periods of critical visioning and asset management are important for churches. The outcome of visioning and asset management is a redesigned church that does real and permanent good. 

    Consider these asset management questions:

  1. Is your congregation now at the place in its spiritual journey where it needs to relocate or build a new addition? Perhaps, like the hermit crab, you have outgrown your shell. Some congregations have grown spiritually to the place that they feel God calling them to leave their inefficient buildings and either rent more flexible space or split worship in to house-sized cell groups. 
  2. Is your congregation is passionately committed to an outreach project or ministry that has outgrown its space? Renovating or building a new place for that mission will dramatically change the way your church budget is organized. 
  3. Do you need a different staff configuration? Now may be the time to do careful and wise changes to the church’s staff, committee structure, and core leadership.


The Asset Management is likely to include most of the following tasks:

  • Restructuring church committees into teams and networked (non-hierarchical) workgroups
  • Improving the ‘curb appeal’ of church buildings (making them look friendlier to the unchurched)
  • Realigning the church’s use of space to match its mission
  • Building or renting whatever new facilities today’s ministry needs
  • Making better use of volunteers while reducing staff overhead
  • Exploration of new partnerships with other churches and nonprofits
  • Growth in stewardship and sacrificial giving
  • Modernizing communication (social media)
  • Improving the church’s visibility and reputation in the community (web advertisement)
  • Whatever else is needed to keep the church serving its community
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
John 6

I have a check list of ‘Things to Pack’ on my iPhone for when I go on trips. Too often, I’ve boarded a plane to realize that I didn’t have something essential, like my speaking notes, my charger for my phone, or any spare underwear. Being equipped is an important part of being successful. Paul writes to the church at Corinth and tells them that they have been fully equipped by God. They have everything that they need (check it out in 1 Corinthians 1:5 & 7). Now, having said that, I’m not going to list any exceptions or buts. The church and the faithful must hear that they already have what they need to be successful.

    This passage connects with Epiphany’s overall message of our being called, or given a vocation, from God. I believe this true on three levels; 1) that God has a life-plan for each of us and gives us exactly what we each need to live by faith 2)that every Christian has spiritual gifts and a spiritually enabled vocation, 3) That every congregation has a calling. The leadership you have and the resources the church currently own are related to what God wants to do with you. It’s time to stop blaming God for making us the way that we are.

    If we are dying, either as individuals or as a local church, perhaps we should prayerfully discern what resources God has placed within our reach for hospice care. End of life decisions are important. ‘Putting your affairs in order,’ is a positive thing when done with the support of good biblical theology and faith. Pastors that can lead people through this process are a rare breed. They teach that closure and death can be forms of success.

    When we are financially strapped or under-employed, when need to learn again how to pray. Can we release resentment, regret, and self-pity? Can we accept that God still has a calling for our individual lives, and for our congregation? Is there a biblical story that will help us to thing of our selves as gifted, even when materially strapped? I like the story of the Loaves and Fishes ( John 6:4-14).

    When we are over worked and beset by things undone, we need to ask God for wisdom and clarity in our vision. The local church needs to know that it can not be all things for all people. It can’t even fulfill every mandate given to it by its denomination. Where are your spiritual assets? What are you passionate about? What gives you joy? It is here that God is calling you.

    If the new year is bringing new transitions, how can we live as people open to the will of God? My list of things to pack when I go on a trip reminds me that I have traveled before. It is a list of things learned from previous mistakes. Life always had new lessons for us. But we have to be open to the God who challenges and deepens our faith through our transitions. How does the confidence that Paul has for the Corinthians translate to the confidence we should have for life? Is there a change ahead that God hasn’t already equipped us to handle?

Your church is already equipped to move in 2014
Epiphany 2
No matter how good the past was...

Recently, a wonderful family run restaurant near us went out of business. Even though they had great food, friendly service, and reasonable prices, they didn’t seem to have the wisdom or energy to adapt to how people were dining today. They sat on a side street with limited parking, they had an outdated but comfortable seating area, and an aging cliental of old friends. Obviously the deck was stacked against them. Or was it? One block over was a large hospital, filled with hungry workers and visitors who were tired of the cafeteria’s offerings. This restaurant, however, didn’t offer lunch or take out. I am convinced that a new business model that focused on meeting the needs of those in the neighborhood would have saved the restaurant. But that would have required dying to the way they always did things and redefining their self-identity to include providing good meals for people who are on the go. 


  • In what ways is your church like this family restaurant?
  • In what ways is it different?


In the secular world, stores and restaurants talk about having a business model. This is an overall plan that details the following:


  1. A target audience - The plan must speak in detail about people that we hope to engage as customers or regular members. Saying “we hope to reach everyone,” is a guaranteed way to fail. Today, you must specialize.
  2. An understanding of the target audiences needs - What products and/or services will you provide more conveniently, more affordably, and at a better quality than your competitors. Congregation’s don’t like to think of themselves as having competitors, but they do. Not just other churches, but also, the multitude of options that society presents for living nominal Christianity.
  3. A plan for advertising your mission (product) and location. Also, an ongoing plan for inviting new people to stop by and sample your wares. 
  4. A process for converting occasional users to committed fans.


Try the above with your church leaders. This exercise relates to Reality Check 101’s visioning process (see the section on Radical Rebirth under the Spiral Rule).