Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The unchurched, how do we reach them?

First off, yes I am back on the blog.  Been a busy month, first month of classes in my new program.  More info about this to come.  However, that isn't what you are interested in right?  Not me, you are interested in those who are unchurched, those who don't have a church home.  How do we reach them?  How do we stop simply moving the ever smaller pool of faithful church goers around from church to church, while watching more folks go out the doors, never to return?  Is anyone really reaching those who aren't churched?

The answer, well, that depends on who you talk to.  Willow Creek church in Chicago, IL has for years had as their slogan "Turning Irreligious People Into Fully Devoted Followers of Jesus."  And they have been really successful in getting lots of people into their doors, but who are those people?  Are they really "irreligious" or are they just bored/disenchanted with the churches they grew up in?  No one knows because frankly, those aren't stats you can accurately collect from the outside, and if someone does know, they aren't gonna tell.

Truth is, despite lots of books and articles and conferences, no one can actually prove they are truly reaching the unchurched.  Mostly because we can't really define who those people actually are.  Some are "dechurched" meaning that they grew up in a church, probably were baptized, were in a youth group etc... but at sometime they drifted away.  So perhaps it has been 3, 5 or 10 years since they went to church, but they aren't truly unchurched.  They know the basics of the faith, they have just dropped away.  These are the majority of the folks the typical megachurches appeal to.  Folks who know who Jesus already is, are comfortable with him and simply just haven't found the right package to plug into.

Yet for the past generation there have been many dechurched who have had kids who didn't get connected to the church again.  Those folks, those kids, might actually be labeled accurately unchurched.  They haven't grown up with the faith, the story isn't as familiar, they won't recognize worship of any kind.  These things are literally new to them.

So how do we reach those folks?  Well certainly we can't reach them by having flashier versions of things they have left behind (and I don't mean to make a pun on those terrible books).  I know folks who grew up in traditional (read: Organ, Piano, Orchestra) music and contemporary (read: Praise Band, preacher in flip flops and Hawaiian shirts) worship environments and have left both behind.  They aren't looking for just a better version of this and frankly folks who didn't grow up with any of it certainly aren't.

What will reach folks who are truly disconnected with the church?  Well, the answer is hard...
1) We have to go to were they are.  This is what new worshipping communities are trying to do.  In Fort Worth we are trying to build something like that at www.kyriefortworth.com
2) We have to engage them and listen to what they are interested in, start with asking them what their needs and questions are.  We can't assume we have something they need if we don't ask them what they need.
3) They won't understand our worship, scriptures, traditions.  Doesn't mean we shouldn't utilize them, in fact, being who we are is probably attractive, so long as we teach them who we are in a manner that isn't condescending and our people actually know why we do things. (not a safe assumption).
4) Individuals are going to have to ask and invite other individuals to come.  It can't be advertising, great websites or facebook pages.  Not even blogs are gonna do it.  Individual relationships will.

The good news is, individual relationships spread and spread exponentially.  One person talks to two, those two talk to two (4), those four talk to two (8), those eight to two (16), sixteen to two (32)....and so on.  Exponential growth.  But it requires empowering individuals to talk to individuals.  Hard work.

But that is, if we are interested, how we can reach the unchurched.  But first, we have to find them...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cowtown Lutheran Has been on Hiatus

In case you didn't notice, Cowtown Lutheran has been on hiatus recently.  This is because I have been in an intensive summer class on leadership and haven't had time to blog.  I will return next week after the papers have been written and turned in. 

I am sure you all will be waiting with baited breath. ;-)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Evangelism Series Blog 4-Why would visitors find a home with you?

Last week I opined that many of the visitors who voluntarily find their way into your community are most likely "homeless Christians" in search of a home.  These are not random seekers who just "happen" into your place of worship, but are folks on a journey, looking for a home.  So why would they find a home with you?

In my ministry career so far, the congregations I have been a part of have welcomed over 150 new adult members (affirmation of faith, adult converts/baptisms, not including infant baptism) into their community.  Thinking back over these folks, their conversations with me and their reasons for joining, I have come up with a few reasons why these "homeless Christians" found a home with us.  In order of approximate % these are...

1) Invited/Referred by a friend/acquaintance, came here, the worship was good and I was genuinely welcomed (80%):  These folks first darkened the door of our congregation because a friend, relation, former pastor, recommended they worship with us.  After several invitations (some ranging into the 10-15 range or more) they attended and when they attended, the worship was good, the sermons relevant, the music done with quality and ultimately the welcome genuine.  Someone took interest in them, got their name and invited them to return.  On folks like this, if we get their contact info, we have a 60-70% retention rate.  This is frankly the lowest financial cost (but significant personal investment), highest return way of growing.  These folks quickly connected, found ways to contribute and made the church their home.

2) Came by invitation to a youth event, VBS, other outreach event (10%): A lower, but still effective way of inviting folks to be a part of the community. A youth attends an event with another youth, their parents get interested and they connect.  The problem here is, that these are high cost (both financial and time commitment by members) for a much lower return.   In Wisconsin, we grew our VBS from 10-15 students to 70-80 within 3 years.  Great stuff, but ultimately the return of folks who were not DMLC members who became members as a result was fairly small.  Still worth doing, but tough, and in the future they will expect significant programming and events.

The rest are a very small number, but they are...
3) Saw the Pastor at a Public Event: (3-5%)  These folks are interested in finding a church, they go to a public event and see a Pastor praying or speaking and think "I could go to that church."  Of course at the end of the day, this leads back into #1.  If they don't find good worship and genuine preaching and teaching and welcome, they won't stay.

4) Googled "Lutheran Churches", saw your website and decided to visit or moved into the area and was looking for an ELCA congregation: (3-5%)  These folks are looking for a new church home.  They are ELCA Lutherans, they are at home with their worship.  While it needs to be done well, these are really easy folks to make feel at home.  But there are VERY few of them.  So don't count on these folks to build your membership.  They can be great members, but if you don't have #1, even these might not stick around very long.

So assuming that folks would even darken the door of your community, why would visitors find a home with you?

-Quality Worship & Relevant Preaching
-Genuine Welcome and Investment in knowing them
-Attention to their kids, and a connection to the community.
-Reasonable Level of Programming (but within reason, most of us can't afford the showy programming, so don't try to compete when you can't)

Ultimately, the connection to the community is the most important.  It is the driver of visits and that of connection.  If a visitor doesn't make a connection with members or a group within the parish soon, they will quickly drift.  While programming is important, at the end of the deal I think quality worship and preaching is most important in driving return visits.  But ultimately, connections is why visitors will find a home with you.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Evangelism Series Blog 3-Visitors, who are they?

So who are those who visit your church?  Who actually darkens the door of a sanctuary these days who isn't a member.  First, a memory...

I was a 22 year old college grad living in Philadelphia during the summer of '99.   I didn't know anyone in Philly, but my company was headquartered there and as such, we spent 3 months at the headquarters learning the culture of the company and how to work Microsoft Excel to the limit. (it was well known that several of our consultants helped Microsoft debug a bunch of their Excel versions)

Being a good ELCA Lutheran, I decided to strike out and attend church one sunny summer morning figuring the place to start was in Mount Airy, the home of the Lutheran School of Theology in Philadelphia.  So I attended worship at the church on the campus there.  Immediately I was recognized as an outsider.  It was clear this community had not had many visitors regularly.  But I was welcomed warmly and invited to worship with them and attend coffee hour etc...  It was a lovely time I had there and I worshiped again with them multiple times.

My question however is, am I a typical visitor to a church, or an anomaly?  At that point I wasn't particularly religious (I was working in finance after all) although I was a committed Lutheran.  So one couldn't call me unchurched, but perhaps I was a homeless Christian?

I have a feeling that many of the folks we have visit our congregations on a Sunday morning are "homeless Christians."  They aren't truly unchurched, frankly the majority of them have religious upbringings and are searching for a new "church home" (ever see that lingo in your visitors brochure?).  I have a feeling, backed up by research from many places, that the majority of visitors in the USA know the story of Jesus, they just haven't, for many reasons, found a place to call "home."    

Over the last few years there has been much hand wringing and self-deprecation in my tribe (the ELCA) about our inability to do evangelism these days.  Frankly, we aren't alone.  The reality is, most of the people who show up on Sunday mornings in your pews aren't unchurched, neophytes to the Gospel.  They have been exposed to the Gospel story, but have either left the church of their home, and become homeless, at some point because of...
1) Age, 20 somethings typically don't do institutions.  They are too mobile, and that is growing into 30 somethings.
2) Experience, they got turned off by some experience, typically of hypocrisy or they found church "boring"
3) Mobility, many Americans move multiple times in their lives due to jobs,family, etc...

These homeless Christians that are visiting you aren't, despite the rhetoric of "seeker sensitive" worship and such, truly unchurched.  Heck, if the Southern Baptists (see previous reference) aren't baptizing the "heathens" in their previous numbers, then who is?  The people visiting?  They are "homeless Christians" looking for a home, probably because they are...
1) Away from home due to a job.
2) Just about to have a baby and think they need a place to raise their kids (or at least get them baptized)
3) Wondering if you truly are welcoming to them despite the fact they are divorced, gay or otherwise marginal.

These are the people who are showing up at your door, wondering if they can come in.  They aren't truly unchurched, they are "homeless" and wondering if your church will provide them refuge.  A place to come to the table of grace and be received.

The communion table as a "soup kitchen" for "homeless Christians."  Is that an acceptably image?  There are many of my Lutheran brethren who would say no.  The table is only for those who have this as their home.  It is a dinner table for a family.  My contention would be, the table is a "soup kitchen," everyone who steps forward gets fed the banquet of grace.  But we must be realistic, those who step forward will probably understand at least partially, what that table means.  It is our job to take them from "homeless" to "home."

So given that, why would they find a home in your church?  That is the next weeks question.  And perhaps we  will now change the rhythm of this series.  Because having identified that most of the folks you will see visiting your church aren't really unchurched, but homeless, how do you reach that growing percentage who don't know the story of the Gospel?  The children of the homeless.

 So in the next three weeks, these are the topics I will address...

1) Why will these folks find a home with you?
2) What about those who truly are unchurched, how do we reach them?
3) Why does evangelism matter in the end?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Evangelism Series Blog 2

First off, a shout out to our council who met tonight, had a great meeting in which we spent a good portion of the time around scripture, especially 1 Corinthians 5-7 (how do we live as free people).  Great conversations about mission and ministry, how we use power and how power can be both a positive and negative in community.  

But on to the purpose of the Blog today.  The question that has been posted is...Do signs, advertising, mailers actually work in generating visitors?

My short answer is that I don't know definitively and nobody else can guarantee they know all that much either.  But what I do know is that your local Mega-Church (or wanna-be) is probably spending 15-20x's what you would ever consider to spend on these tools.

These I believe are worth your investment.  Initially expensive, probably costing you $15-30K for a good one, especially if you want it to have an electronic message board.  But the benefits are significant for the 1) self-esteem of a community (nothing is worse than a business/congregation that doesn't announce its presence boldly) and 2) at least make the community aware that you exist.  My congregation in Wisconsin had an unfortunately reality in that our parking lot, not our building, faced the main road in town.  However, by having a good sign, which we could change the message on regularly, at least allowed us to get our message out.  If 3,000 people drove by daily (conservative) that would be almost 100,000 views a year, which drives the cost of the sign down quite quickly.  If you are in a bigger city (as my current parish is) multiply those looks by a factor of 5 or more.

We are currently debating this in our current congregation.  Local phone books will run you into the hundreds of dollars per month for a good placement and ad with more than just your phone number.  Does this generate leads and visits?  Probably not as many as you wish, but then again, some of your local churches must be budgeting $10K a year for their ads.  So I guess they must feel it is worth it and according to this, they are probably right.  However, how much are you paying for each potential visit?  My thesis would be that only those with significant budgets are going to get much bang for their buck there.  They are moving towards the "major buzz" factor of being omnipresent and connecting to those folks the most, moving into other media as well.  I won't even go into radio advertising or tv as most folks I know aren't even thinking about that market.

Direct Mail:
In theory a good idea, yet another tough sell unless you have lots of money to spend.  Every Christmas and Easter I receive a postcard or two from a church in my neighborhood.  Given that the DMA assumes a  less than 2% response rate for a generic mail prospect list, at say $1.50/mailer, you would have to spend $500 dollars just to generate around 5 interests and do those actually visit more than your website?  An anecdotal example would be that on internship we sent out probably 1,000 postcards inviting folks to a free cookout in our organic community garden.  My gut on that day is that our response rate was closer to 0% than 1%.

So at the end of the day, I guess I am most driven to think about costs and also long term impact.  A good sign will last you 10-15 years (unless you are a congregation that assumes you buy something once and never pay for another one, then it will last you 50).  Even at a high initial price tag, that will have a much more visible impact/dollar than either mail or advertising.  

But really nothing replaces relational advertising by your community, inviting others to be a part of their discipleship community, following Jesus.  Walking your immediate neighborhood, getting to know them, their needs, dreams and desires.

Here I am linking a long article that tells you two major things.  1) Advertising isn't a complete waste of money but 2) word of mouth from those who have "bought in" is the best.  You need to somehow generate "buzz" about your congregation to create a "ripple effect" in the community to justify that advertising dollar.  Congregations with big money to spend can do that, create buzz through advertising, but many of us don't have that kind of money.  Facebook is a nice alternative to connecting, but again, you are mostly connecting to your already convinced, the good news is, they can invite others to see.

I would love to have a $30,000 advertising budget for my congregation.  But I know that most of you and we probably won't see that happen anytime soon.  Until we reach a size where that $30,000 isn't justifiably turned into a staff position, generating that one-on-one relationship buzz that is most cost effective, we won't compete in that world.  But we have to generate buzz and visitors.  So now we turn to those who do visit, who are they?  Why are they coming to your church?  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Evangelism Series Blog 1

This is the first in a blog series on Evangelism and the topic of “Who is visiting your church?”  In this first post, I have challenged myself to write a statement on what I believe (currently, subject to change) Evangelism is (and isn’t).  As always, these are my thoughts, relevant to my context, you can certainly add or subtract, but this is what I think.  Initially I challenged myself to do so in less than 750 words, but that was too wordy.  So I lowered it a bit, and even at that, it is too wordy, but here we go…

Evangelism’s root word Evangel means “Good News.”  So Evangelism is simply doing “Good News Work.”  Yet the Evangelical in ELCA not withstanding, Lutheran reticence to identify with such labels is well documented.  Although centered theologically on the Cross and Empty Tomb, the Good News, we aren’t sure about accepting such a label.

Much of this reticence is produced by a culture in which Evangelism/Evangelicalism are fraught with negative meaning and images.  Think crazy street preachers, abortion clinic sign holders, gay funeral protesters, clergy sex/financial scandals, hard sell altar calls, get rich quick theology, etc…   Despite the spectacular size of some “mega-churches”, the overall percentage of American’s attending worship continues to decline.  These mega-parishes preach to the choir and many more are sneaking out the back door.

But it is also well documented that these folks sneak out the back door not because they don’t believe in Jesus or that his teachings aren’t relevant.  Many want to be Christian, the Good News sounds good to them but they struggle with where they belong.  Maybe they have slightly more nuanced views on those “hot button” issues or maybe they just don’t want to be so “loud” a Christian.

How can I and these folks claim the title Evangelical?  I suggest three do’s and don’ts...

Do…equip yourselves and others to live out the good news in word and service, especially in relation to Biblical principals of compassion, stewardship and tithing.  Remember God’s preference for the poor and forgotten, the widow and the alien. (see…the Prophets)

Don’t…equate worldly riches with God’s favor and poverty with God’s wrath.  If you have above average wealth and resources (i.e. above the median income in your county), give thanks and follow Biblical principals of stewardship and tithing.  If you are not, do the same.

Do…equip yourself and others to engage neighbors about faith, but only after asking them about their lives, actually listening and learning their joys and sorrows. (see…Woman at the Well)

Don’t…try to hard sell your neighbors on their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, guilt them into church attendance or threaten them or those they love with hellfire, they will stop talking to you.

Do...worship authentically and excellently.  Preach the Law AND the Gospel.  Connect Sunday to Monday. Sing and dance.  Welcome visitors genuinely and follow up with them!  Have multi-generational education to equip disciples of Jesus.  And DO IT WELL!

Don’t…assume worship style and programs will grow your church.  The folks looking for flashy programs and high performance worship can find it and you probably don’t have the resources to do it or even the calling. 

Obviously these are relevant to some and not to others, but they are guidelines I use in evaluating how “Evangelical” we are being in my context.  Basically they are simply principals of Good News living, of discipleship, and because of that they are hard.  Being Authentic to who you are, your context and choosing to be Excellent in that will cause trouble because it isn’t easy and requires tough decisions, but it is Evangelical. 

Next week… Do signs, advertising, mailers actually work in generating visitors?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cowtown Lutheran on Vacation

Forgot to mention in my previous weeks post about my blog series that it would not begin until Tuesday May 31st as I am on vacation in Wisconsin this week.  Will see you in a week!

Until then, be thinking Evangelism!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Blog Series? Yes Indeed!

Ok, so I have occasionally done sermon series in the past.  Usually based on the Lectionary texts, tied to a season (which is actually easier than many folks think it is).  But I have never done a blogging series, until now! Today I begin something new, focused on an issue that has been brought up again and again in conversations I have had lately.

So what is that issue, the dread word is...EVANGELISM!

Despite the fact that we are people of the Gospel (literally εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) or "Good News!") so often we recoil from the prospect of actually sharing this good news with others.  Additionally, it has been brought to my attention that some even contend that the goal of a congregation to increase the size of a church, or "church growth", might not be the most noble of goals.  

This is very strange to me in that I believe Christ was quite clear in Acts 1 that he desired us to take the Gospel to the nations and that we were expected to both face challenge and be successful in inviting others to know the wonder of a relationship with God.  So why is it so hard for us to engage in honest and hopeful Evangelism (as opposed to the Evangelism of fear that so many propagate)?  Why has church growth become a dirty word in our circles?  Can't we grow our communities, care for the poor and aged, help nurture new disciples, baptize the young and old, bury the dead and in all of this be evangelical?

So what do we make of this.  In the next 5-6 weeks I want to take on a series of topics related to evangelism that I hope might spark conversation at Trinity as well as in other places.  These topics (I will mostly cover one a week, but perhaps depending on the spirit, add new ones or subtract others) are...

1) What is Evangelism? (in 750 words or less, I am challenging myself)
2) Do signs, advertising, mailers actually work in generating visitors? 
3) Who is visiting your church?
4) Why would any of those folks join a church today?
5) Why would they join your church?
6) Why does this matter at all?

So we shall see where we go in this series.  But if nothing else, it keeps me accountable to actually blogging.  BTW: check out our church website at www.tlcfw.org (of course nothing I say here represents what they think, after all, I just preach there, they think for themselves) because if you do it will drive up our traffic and that makes Google happy and Taylor happy. So visit the site at least twice a day ok!  See you next week (I will be blogging from Wisconsin!)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Snakes and Spiders

So I actually got a comment on my blog last week when I ventured into the territory of current political events.  To be clear, I don't do that simply to generate controversy, but I do want to have open and stimulating conversation.  If we as Christians who think do not engage the world, those who do will wind up speaking for us in ways we might not appreciate.

That said, I would like to take on another of the conversations that have arisen in the wake of the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Much of what I have seen have been comments like "we cut off the head of the snake."  Basically, stating that if the head is cut, the body will soon die.

A quick story from my childhood.  Playing at a friends farm, I remember one afternoon moving a toy dump truck and underneath it was a baby rattlesnake probably 8-10 inches long.  Screaming for my friends father, I ran away and he came with a hoe.  In one quick movement, the snake no longer had its head.  However, for the rest of the afternoon we watched in horror as its body twitched and shivered.  I never came within 5 feet of that shaking snake.

My point is two-fold...
1) Even if you cut off the head of the snake, be prepared for convulsions to follow which will be both frightening and sad.  These are the death pangs of the organism.  The good news is, the organism finally stopped moving after several hours and died.
2) But ultimately, despite this horror, hope that you have killed a snake.  Because in my leadership, I try very hard not to create snakes, but to create spiders.  Spiders spin webs.  These webs have no clear head, they are strung to many points of contact so that if you kill/separate one, there are others to pick up the slack.  The webs are complicated, with many strands that make them confusing, but also resilient and hard to destroy.  Good leaders create webs of accountability and authority, so that organizations are flexible and resilient, able to weather even hurricanes, and certainly weather to death of one leader.

For the sake of the world, I pray Osama's organization is a snake, but I worry that it will be a web.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Saying "I"

Sunday night about 9:30pm, the news started breaking into all the TV shows.  Apparently something big had happened, indeed, as K learned from the texts that started blowing up in the TCU library, Osama Bin Ladin had been found and killed.  About an hour or so later President Obama got on TV to announce that indeed the news was true.

In theory, this was a big win for the US in the war on terror, but of course in our 24 hour news cycle, winning elections is the only thing that really matters, so immediately the talk began, was this a big win for President Obama?  So jaded by political process, we couldn't even take 10 minutes to reflect on the reality our nation had chosen to assassinate this man, that his death would drag up issues for thousands of Americans whose lives were taken because of his leadership.  No, we immediately have to make it political.

Not long after that conversation began of course, the criticism started.  I saw it on facebook, from friends who couldn't bear to congratulate the president on the success of the military he commands to those who ripped into him for saying "I" too much.

Whether you support Obama as our president or not, whether you voted for him or not, I think this critique is a fascinating study in leadership.  Reading the text of his speech, there are but 2 paragraphs in which he references his role in this event.  He identifies in those 2 paragraphs his role as commander in chief to both authorize the following of leads and ultimately authorizing an incursion into another sovereign nation's air space.

Obama took a big risk on Sunday night.  Had the helicopters not functioned, had the bunker been empty, had the Pakistani air force shot down a US chopper, had US servicemen died in the incursion, it would have been him standing there taking the failure.  When you are the leader, it is you who are on the line.  30 some years ago, another Democratic President had to go on national television and own up to the fact that an incursion into a middle eastern nation's airspace, an incursion intended to free US hostages, had failed.  Many attribute his loss in the next election to that failure.

When you are a leader, you have to say "I" a lot.  Usually it is in defeat.  You take the blame when things go wrong and you should.  But occasionally, you get to say "I authorized that" and get a measure of credit for taking a risk.  Time will tell if he actually will profit politically from this.  And I can honestly say I hope he doesn't.  Because this I believe wasn't a "political" move.  This was a decision made for the safety and security of the world.  It certainly will not free us of violence, for violence cannot possibly accomplish that.  But today the world has one less bully in it, and it is because a man who the American people had given the authority to do so, said go.  I for one, think we should give him some credit for that and then encourage him to get our economy moving again.  Cause at the end of the day, "It's the Economy stupid..." that really matters.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Keeping the Big Mo

One of my favorite personalities in the world of football is a guy named Frosty Westering.  He coached at Pacific Lutheran University (my dad's alma mater) for over 30 years.  In that time he won more than 300 games, 4 national titles, and wrote a really quality book Make the Big Time Where You Are, which unfortunately is only available in used at this point.  Obviously being the coach of a small Lutheran college in Tacoma doesn't translate into best seller success.  In fact, in googling it, I found some pretty negative reviews, which is frankly not surprising of anyone who puts leadership principles out there.  Some people will basically think you are full of crap.  Part of the deal.

My point in bringing up 'ol Frost is that one of his principles was of keeping "the big MO" or momentum.  Frosty certainly never had great athletes on his teams.  His guys were brought together from the cast offs and never were's of the college football world.  The greatest team he ever coached, was led by a guy left behind by the big state university up the road and went on to star as the Lutes team leader.

So the point!  The big MO is so huge in getting things going.  One of the things Jim Collins talks about in his books is the challenge in getting the flywheel moving.  The heavy lifting getting the momentum started in an organization in a positive direction.

Last week, in the midst of Holy Week, two funerals and all sorts of other stuff, I was encouraged by a member to keep up my "uber-enthusiasm".  Basically a challenge, encouragement to keep up "the big MO" at Trinity.  To which I think we responded well.  (and I say we intentionally because everyone really needs to understand, this is all a team effort)  But now it is the week after Easter day, a week usually reserved for vacations and relaxation for Pastor types.  But should it be?

If we have "the Big Mo" going, why would we stop?  Why would we take a break.  And we aren't.  Our mission assembly is this weekend.  Lots of great stuff going on.  A canvas of our neighborhood, asking our neighbors for food for the local food pantry, while also telling them about our ministry.  Hundreds of Lutherans coming to Hurst to be hosted by the Greater Fort Worth conference.  Lots of momentum going on.

But I worry about our worship life at Trinity.  Will we step back now?  With the intensity of Easter day.  300+ in worship at Trinity (more than in at least 5+ years, if not more).  Will we sit back and relax?  Or will we build on that "Big MO" and move forward.

I am heartened that the choir has agreed to keep singing anthems through Holy Trinity weekend.  Well past the usual cut off of Memorial Day.  Our youth are preparing to head to Colorado in June for a mission trip, after leading us in worship on May 22nd.  Lots of good momentum, but we must keep it going.

And yet we must rest.  So we need to multiply.  It can't be the same people doing the ministry every week.  Yet that will mean giving ministry away.  K and I have been here for 8 months now.  We have seen much great progress and God at work in this place.  So what can we give away?  What will the people take on?  What will God inspire someone to take on that they never thought they would?

Well this weekend, I have a feeling the 20 folks who will go walking out into our neighborhood probably didn't think they would be doing that 8 months ago.  And neither of us will be going with them.  This is their ministry, we will be busy working at other tasks.  So that is a start, ministry multiplying, and for that, I am grateful.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Two Weeks Off

So I haven't blogged not for almost 3 weeks, meaning I have had 2 Tuesdays (which was my resolution) with no posts.  As such, any readers I might have had probably gave up on me and won't read this anyways, but I am back on the wagon (so to speak).

My absence, despite the good reasons for it, have me thinking about the importance of accountability.  As has a book I have been reading Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden.  In it he talks about many things but most interesting to me so far is the reaffirmation of the Triad form of accountability groups.  In these groups, three people covenant together to go on a discipleship journey together, to keep each others trust and hold each other accountable on that journey.

His point is that one-on-one relationships are good, but the addition of the third party brings an added dimension to the accountability structure.  It isn't just one person you are letting down, or one persons ideas you are hearing from but you have conversation partners that work together offering ideas, asking questions.

So far in 2011 I have tried to have coaching conversations with all of our council members who are leaders of teams. For the most part these have been relatively fruitful but I wonder if an additional piece would be to subtract myself out of the equation and create triad groups within the council.  Groups where they meet together and hold each other accountable for the work of their teams, their communal growth.

Accountability is hard but good.  As I don't have a covenant relationship re: blogging here, it was easy to slip away and forget to continue my resolution and not be called on it.  Not sure that my blogging is that important of a part of my life of discipleship (or anyone else's for that matter), but there are many other things that are.

A blessed Holy Week to whoever might be out there.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Where have all the Cowboys gone?

In 1997 Paula Cole recorded her only pop hit "Where have All the Cowboy's Gone?" A song that both pined for the past structure of relationships and yet also realized that this romantic image was in fact quite unrealistic.

The reason I mention the song is that it immediately stuck into my head (the danger of songs recorded in an era when you listened to radio 10 hours a day) when I was contemplating another thought.  This thought was brought on by a recent sermon I heard and a new book I have been reading.

The book, The Forgotten Ways is both a historical, analytical text as well as a call to action for the church.  It encourages us to reclaim our "Apostolic DNA" and move forward boldly into the world as the early church did.  To be in my own thinking "cowboys" against the establishment of institution and structure that binds us from being apostolic, that has limited both the lay responsibility to evangelism as well as limiting Pastor's to more or less lives of caretaking the established flock through word and sacrament.  Neglecting the necessary and God given gifts of Apostleship.

The recently memory is the result of a preacher recently I heard who extorted the congregation that gathered, a newly formed congregation installing its first pastor, to "convince people" of the relevance of the faith in their lives.  They needed, this preacher said, to have this sort of conviction to convince others that the mission of the church is both relevant and essential to their lives of faith.

So where are the Cowboys of the faith?  Where are the open rangers who are willing to go out into the undiscovered country.  To herd restless bands of sheep (and probably a lot of goats) towards more fertile fields as well as keep them from danger?  Where are the convincers?  Or in another "churchy" word, where are the apologists?

We need more apologists in our church.  Understanding the term apologists is not encouraging an "apology" in the modern sense (to say they are sorry) but in the ancient sense.  Apology is to make the argument for, to explain why the faith is true, the proclamation necessary and frankly, at the end of the day vital for the very life of the people who most need to hear it.

Cowboys were apologists in many ways.  Their values were practical and wise, based on a need to survive, not on ideology that divided.  With so few of them, and so much work to go around, they needed to trust one another and have accountability that they would do the tasks assigned.

Living lives on the open range, encountering those they encountered, did this lifestyle always go well?  Well like Cole's song, it was a mixed bag. Of course not everyone claimed and lived into these things in a positive manner.  Any maverick instinct results in unexpected responses.

But ultimately they overall did what needed to be done to get their flocks to safety and ultimately lived in a way that became legendary.  I know a few, but I believe we need some more Cowboy apologists for the faith, especially in Cowtown, but also throughout our world.  Those who aren't afraid to invite others to hear a word of grace, to break down walls of oppression, to try new things, to focus on a mission and to value people for their gifts and abilities, not for their standing in society or wealth (which never got you far if you have watched a few John Wayne movies).

A while ago a wise professor once stated that he thought I might be an apologist for the faith.  I was honored that he might think so, based on the witness of others in my life.  I am not sure I am yet living into that role, but given my current place, perhaps a little more Cowboy would be appropriate.  In fact, maybe the best role of all of us pastors is not so much to be the Cowboy, but living into it so as to train others to do so.  Then there isn't one "John Wayne", there would be a whole posse of folks, proclaiming the good news of the One who sent them.  That would be an exciting way.  Imagine, a congregation of Cowboy apologists?  Proclaiming Jesus Christ crucified and raised, calling all to new life.  Now that would be worth a "Yeeeeeeeeee-Haw!"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ashes on the Pitch

Ash Wednesday afternoon a Trinity member called me because the soccer team he helps coach at his High School was forced to reschedule a game against a big rival from the night before to Wednesday night.  As a result, a bunch of the guys on his team were lamenting that they wouldn't be able to attend services that night and receive Ashes (most of them concerned about what their mom's might say if they didn't of course).  So T gave me a call out of the blue and said, "Hey Pastor, could you come over and say a prayer or something with these guys?"

Of course I jumped at the opportunity, got in my car, drove across town and arrived just as the JV team was finishing up practice and the opposing team was arriving.  Although initially jazzed at this opportunity to be with these young people as I walked down to the Soccer pitch (which is situated on a bluff overlooking downtown Fort Worth, quite a stunning view) I became a little apprehensive at what I might find.  After all, this is a public school, this is before a big soccer game with playoff implications, what kind of reception might I receive from the other coaches or school officials.

As always, a smiling welcoming face calmed my apprehension.  T welcomed me over, introduced me to the head coach of his team and a couple of his guys, and then we went over and talked to the other coach.  Obviously and rightly focused on the task at hand, he kind of sideways mentioned to some of his players, "Hey, this Pastor is here to give anyone who wants it ashes, any of you guys missing church tonight?" Half the hands of his team shot up.

About 5 minutes later, with the guys from T's team who wanted to participate and their opponents.  We gathered, twelve or fifteen of us, at one end of the pitch, in the shadow of the goal and took hands and prayed.  Then one by one I went around and made the sign of the cross in ashes on their forehead, asking each their name and then saying "Steve, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" and so on I did this for Jose, Raju, Tom, Diego and so on (not their real names, but representative).  White, Black, Latino, Central Asian...from many religious backgrounds and socio-economic realities.  I made the sign of the cross on their forehead and one by one, as I completed that, they turned and ran back, to join their team for warm-up.

Two teams from different ends of Fort Worth, young men in the very prime of life, invincible in their minds, brought together by a ritual that reminds us that they are not invincible, that they are dust and shall return to that dust.  Brought together because of a relationship that was formed by a Pastor who came before me, that I have had the honor of developing and I am witnessing grow into a true discipleship relationship.  Brought together by a phone call.

I hear a lot of my Pastor friends and parishioners lament about the disestablishment of religion in our schools.  About not having school prayer etc...  I have to be honest, I never grew up in that world and frankly, I prefer this.  This is honest proclamation brought on by relationships of trust and accountability that have grown over years.  I was there not because the establishment hierarchy told me to, I was their because of a friend.  Those youth participated not because this was mandatory chapel, they did it because they knew it was something important to them and their families.  But I will say one thing for this way, it requires more work, relationships and ultimately, it requires the willingness to receive rejection.

In the stands afterwards, T heard and addressed a bunch of questions about what had gone on.  Questions asked by those who had NEVER seen anything like that, who had never heard of Ash Wednesday.  No doubt, those youth who participated were asked questions about what they had participated in.  I didn't stay to address that, they stayed, they were the witnesses that day.  The mark of their faith was boldly proclaimed on their forehead, mingling with the sweat of their exertion as they competed for victory.  The mark of faith reminding us all that the victory has already been won.

God has not been banished from our schools, so long as those disciples of God are willing to go and take the opportunities the Spirit presents for us to witness.  Thank you T, for that chance and for being willing to witness.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Preaching to Myself

Just got done writing my article for the monthly newsletter.  A fairly arcane mode of communication, but one we still hold on to at Trinity and in many congregations.

Interestingly, I wrote it without thinking a lot about it (that might come as a surprise, but sometimes you just get going on something and the words come without a lot of thought) and then I re-read it.  And in so doing I realized, I am preaching to myself.  I need to hear this as much as I need others to hear it.

Wonder how often this happens to pastors or other leaders in communicating.  Also wonder how healthy this is, am I reading the situation correctly?  Are these the questions they have?  Or am I just putting my anxiety onto the community?  Addressing questions they aren't asking?  Something to ponder...

Dear Partners in Mission,

We have discovered this Lent the reality that we spend a great deal of our lives in the wilderness and that wilderness wandering brings many questions…

Where will we go?  How will we pay the bills?  What will happen after I die? What direction should we turn?  What person should I be committed to?  How will my kids turn out?  Who can I trust?  Can I trust at all?

These questions and more challenge us and can lead us to fear and anxiety.  Anxiety that we don’t have the answers and ultimately, even answering those questions will bring only more questions and situations we cannot handle.  It may begin to seem that we are constantly under a sword of Damocles, hanging there ready to strike yet again.  And in that wilderness we wonder, where are you God?

This Lent, in our wilderness we have found that God is actually right there with us.  Although it can be challenging to believe this, the history of God’s people bears it out.

Often ignored, the Old Testament reading for Easter Sunday this year speaks to God’s presence in the wilderness.  “Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness…I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jeremiah 31:2-3) 

Challenging to believe, but there is grace in the wilderness.  The Israelite’s received manna from heaven and in the wilderness of fear and anxiety that first Easter day, a voice called out to a weeping woman.  She thought he was a gardener, but in calling her name, she knew that no wilderness, not even death was too great for the grace of God.

In Our Risen Christ,
Pastor Erik Gronberg

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Overplaying your Hand

Although I have watched, I have quite intentionally avoided opining on the festivities in Wisconsin occurring over the past few weeks.  Basically I have been operating under the following two principles...
1) I know folks who feel passionately about both sides of this issue, whose passions, lives, jobs, healthcare, pensions and political futures are wrapped up in this, and I care about all of them.
2) I am no longer a resident of the great state of Wisconsin, I have relinquished my right to vote there and be a part of the government there.  And as a firm believer in the rights of individual states to discern their destiny without undo outside influence (which would include the influence of money and people, I don't think I need to go into more on that, but neither side is very innocent here), it isn't my place to say what should or shouldn't be done in Wisconsin.

However, today I read an insightful column that I believe gives a bit of context in which I might opine on simply some of the concepts going on there and frankly, throughout our nation currently.  The concept is..."overplaying your hand."

I am by no means a poker player, I leave that to my brother and my brother-in-law, but I do know a couple things about poker and even moreso about leadership.  When you have a winning hand, when you have the opportunity to achieve your goals, you have a decision to make.  Do you go for the moon shot, the big deal, the huge payday...or do you take the win, achieve what you had hoped for and move forward to build on that success.

My contention is that Scott Walker has overplayed his hand.  In his desire to become the new darling of the Republican Party, the Tea Party, whatever, in his goal (which has become more apparent day after day) to get himself moved up from Wisconsin to the big time of Washington he has overplayed the moment.  He could have accepted the concessions of the union, taken the pay cuts, the pension cuts and moved on to unite a coalition of smaller government, fiscally conservative folks (of which he would find many in Wisconsin and throughout the nation). He could have shown magnanimosity in victory and done his most important job, serve the entire people of Wisconsin, even those who disagreed with him.

But instead he has decided to overplay his hand and become a union buster.  A noble profession for those of his political thinking, a role that will win him a great deal of friends.  But how many of those friends will be in Wisconsin?  In so doing he has pitted neighbors against neighbors and made a BIG mistake.  Because in the end, most of us like our kid's teacher.  We may think teacher unions are big bad machines, but we like our kid's teacher.  More to the point, most teacher's live down the street from us, their spouses work in the same towns, their kids go to the same sunday school.

There is a line in leadership.  How far can you go without overplaying your hand.  It is a temptation the comes regardless of political ideology (again, I have no partisan axe to grind here, just making commentary) and you can find examples on both sides of the aisle who have done so.

So how do you keep from overplaying?  I believe you have to either have a fabulous internal compass, a guiding principal and light, a meter that guides you.  Or you have to have fabulous subordinates.  Those who you can fully trust, who advise and coach you in your successes, but also call you back when you overstretch.  Walker apparently is missing those voices.  He has 4 years of governorship to accomplish his goals, why do it all at once?  Well, maybe his goals aren't to govern, but to move on up.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nunc dimittus

Can you have a mentor that you only interacted with for a brief part of your life?  A person who was huge for about 3 years or so, who you had a personal connection with but then basically related to only via his/her writings, public interviews, etc...?

This morning I saw the news that the Rev. Professor Peter Gomes had joined the Church Triumphant (for those not in "the know", that is church speak for died) on Monday.  Only a week ago I learned from my dad (via David Gergen, long story) that Gomes had suffered a stroke...and then this morning, through Facebook, I saw the article that he was gone.

My sense of loss at his death is palpable.  Although I hadn't corresponded with him in years and the last time I was in his presence was at Luther Seminary, where he was visiting and preaching and I was honored to his assisting minister, the knowledge that he was there made the world a bit more stable for me.

In my mind I immediately thought of the scene from A Few Good Men where Kaffee confronts Jessep about his leadership, and Jessep replies that "You need me on that wall!"  I needed Peter Gomes on that wall.  I needed to know that he was thinking, writing, preaching and leading that community at Harvard.

I needed to know that someday another 18 year old freshman, scared, lonely and far from home.  Lost in his own self doubt and academic failure could hear the bells of Memorial Church ring on a Sunday morning and if he or she bothered to stroll the 100 yards from bed to pew, would be both comforted and challenged by the proclamation of a God who loved them and expected them to do something with their life.  That they were blessed to be a blessing and that if they could understand their place in the history of the school they might recognize that God is still the center of Harvard as God has been since 1636. Whether those within or without who could call us Godless, recognized it.

Almost two years ago I was asked to preside (presumably being one of the only clergymen of my class) at the memorial service for our 10th Class Reunion.  I wrote a little reflection for the day and thought about sending it to Gomes, but never did.  Probably out of self doubt again, wondering would he think it silly or trite?  

Perhaps, and he was not one to mince words or critique.  But I centered my reflection on a memorial that stands in his beloved Memorial Church to the Harvard students who died fighting for Germany in the first world war.  A memorial that has always meant a great deal to me (maybe because I am Lutheran) as it acknowledged that those who came to Harvard came from many places and with many allegiances.  We were drawn for many reasons and cut from different clothes but ultimately were united by our bond of being a part of our University.  So Peter, we remember you, and we give thanks for you as we give thanks for those that have gone before and we trust that another will come to lead in your absence.


Peter Gomes was cut from a different cloth, but today I give thanks that one more of the 10,000 claimed victory today.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Into the Wilderness

Crossing over into Mile 17 of the Livestrong Austin Marathon, we entered a wilderness stretch.  Having run down from the capital, through south austin, tarrytown, west austin, now we crossed onto a 1.5 mile stretch of road bordering Mopac, a wilderness stretch, a long stretch with few fans, no water stops and wind.

This was the beginning of the wall coming down on my running partner and me.  Scott and I felt great at 10 miles, good at the half, strong through the hills of 13-15 miles, but then the wilderness hit, and it hit hard.

I had not intended to run a second marathon.  Having run the Twin Cities in 2008, surviving record warm temps and humidity, and surviving to finish I figured that was good.  I knew the time investment running 26.2 cost.  The hours of training, the time away from family.  But my friend wanted to run, so we ran.  And about 18 miles in we entered the wilderness and the wall started coming down.

How often in leadership, in life, do we start toward a goal feeling strong?  Even halfway in we feel confident we are going the right direction and things feel good, we have ups and downs, we get stressed but survive and think the worst is over, only to hit a wall.

My Dad told us that morning as we set out to "enjoy the journey."  And for about 18 miles we indeed were enjoying the journey, but then it got hard, really really hard.  At that point, what I needed wasn't to enjoy the journey, but clearly understand the goal.  To know how far it was, how each step was bringing us closer to the goal.

Moses knew the goal, the promised land.  In the midst of 40 years in the wilderness he had to keep the people focused on that goal.  While my marathon lasted around 5 hours, Moses' lasted 40 years.  How often did he struggle, did he doubt?  How often did Miriam have to sing a song, or Aaron give an inspiring speech to get them through the day?

While the journey of leadership is good, and has its points of grace, I believe to effectively lead through the inevitable trials we must know what the goal is.  We must set that vision out in front of ourselves.  Be clear on where we are going, what will success be, or else in the midst of the pain of the wilderness, when the wall drops down, we will fail.

So what is your goal?  What is mine?  Scott and I accomplished our goal on Sunday.  We crossed the finish line, received our medals, took the pictures.  But now what?  We better figure that out, because the wilderness is coming.  Lent is coming, temptation is coming.  So what is next?

In the midst of this wilderness, I am reminded yet to give thanks to God, who has accomplished the greatest goal.  While Moses never entered the promised land, the people did.  Perhaps this is some perspective. Our goals are important, yet the greatest goal has been achieved, life eternal has been granted and each week we get that foretaste of the feast to come.  In the midst of mile 18, a council meeting, a master planning session, we need that perspective.  God has come and brings life and hope.  The wilderness is part of the journey, but the end is Christ.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Earlier today I was listening the 1310 AM (The Ticket) as they broadcast live from Edmonton in preparation for the Dallas Stars hockey game against the Oilers tonight.  As I listened they were talking about the teams, interviewing former players and then went into a conversation about the weather.  To understand things, for folks from DFW, Edmonton weather is downright scary.  This is a place where the average high in the warmest month of the year (July) is 73 degrees.  That is our average low 6 months out of the year.

So what is my point?  Well, the funny thing is, the DFW folks were actually pretty sensitive and not stupid about their comments.  They talked about how here we get annoyed with the weather, assuming somehow that our frustration will cause it to warm up while folks up in Edmonton are smart enough to realize that their frustration with the weather, will basically do nothing.

I resonate with this because a 2 weeks ago I was really frustrated with the weather.  Stuck at home with Annika, K off on a trip and snow and ice on the ground here and ultimately frozen pipes to deal with.  My frustration, sense of claustrophobia and ultimately sense of helplessness became very real and I railed against the cold.  It isn't supposed to be that cold here, it is supposed to warm up quickly.  If it didn't why would we put pipes in unheated crawl spaces on our attics?  I took to looking at the weather forecasts every couple minutes, waiting for the sun to come out, wondering when it would finally get warmer.

How often do we spend pointless energy worrying about those things we cannot change?  I know I do and I certainly know others do as well.  Although my looking at the grey sky and demanding it turn blue, the sun to come out, doesn't make a difference, I still did it.  How often do we gather in a committee or team meeting, look at the reality of the situation (financial, individual support, attendance, etc...) and instead of facing up to the reality simply demand something change?  Far too often I presume.

As leaders, I think a little Edmonton wisdom would help us out.  There are realities we cannot change and to be successful we shouldn't waste energy demanding they change, instead we should recognize those realities, learn from them, change and adapt.  Otherwise, how could anyone ever live in Canada?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Viva Las Vegas

Greetings to you from sunny Las Vegas.  After all the events of the past month or so (including last week that included 4 snow days, frozen pipes and driving to the airport on ice-slick roads surrounded by idiots) Kendra and I are having a mental health break made possible mostly by her folks and aunt and uncle.  It is head clearing to get away, we are grateful.

Had a lot of time to think and ponder this morning as I completed by final long run before the marathon I have foolishly signed up for on the 20th of February.  Nice thing about Vegas running, not many hills, tough thing, wind and extremely dry temps.  You don’t realize you are dehydrated until it is too late.

In the course of my 20 miles today I covered a dramatic cross-section of the reality of America.  From the intensity and wealth of the Vegas Strip to the grittier, more old-school Vegas of the Fremont area, over to the low slung buildings of UNLV (home of the runnin’ rebels) and past at least 5 wedding chapels, I encountered the highest of high rent districts and the lowest of low.  From my comfortable (but by no means opulent) room, I ran by rooms that go for thousands a night, older run down motels (some no doubt available “by the hour”) and even the cardboard and blanket hovels of the homeless shoved into the doorway of deserted buildings.  In addition I saw signs in at least 4 different languages and heard probably 5 or more languages spoken.

What a picture of America with all of its wealth, diversity, power and yet tremendous inequality!!!  This is a town built on rampant and massive consumption, yet now over a million folks call it home and it has become not just a big theme park in the desert, but an actual city with needs and realities. 

So as I ran, I thought about that.  What does so much inequality and diversity in so small a space say about our nation and about our historic leadership?  In thinking I came up with three thoughts….

1)      The mob would have run the homeless farther away from the strip than the corporations do.  Although we can lambast the multi-national corporations that have built these monstrosities along the strip, driving out any small businesses, making the entire town a high end Disneyland for adults…they can’t legally kick out the homeless and ensure we don’t see them.   You come to Vegas today and you know there are hurting people, that is isn’t all beautiful fluorescent lights. The mob, via intimidation, incentives and brutal force would not allow the couple I saw today, huddled together, begging for money (and they were just a few) on the pedestrian overpass between the Bellagio and Bally’s.  Those folks woulda been outta here.  That is not the image of Vegas, but it is an important reality that visitors need to see.
2)      That said, it is clear that social services in Vegas are challenged and lacking.  Despite the incredible wealth flowing through this town, you go more than two blocks off the strip and you see dilapidated housing, cheap weekly rental hotels and boarded up businesses.  Although the federal courthouse was impressive, it is clear that there is a lack of emphasis from the political leadership here on public parks, community gathering places, local police sub-stations and other basic social services.  And lest you think I only saw a bit of Vegas, remember, I ran 20 miles, up the strip, into downtown, through north Vegas and down to the University.  Certainly not the whole town, but a big part of it.
3)      Being a political leader in a town like this must take an incredible ability to balance interests, read the political and economic winds, relate to people of incredible diversity and be wise in leadership.  How do you balance the needs of the strip and the people who make the strip come to life?  How do you negotiate the incredible drop in real estate values, provide those basic services and schools when a large portion of those who move here are coming to escape taxes and have little interest in providing for schools they (as retired folks) will never send children too.  The temptation would be to fall into a ditch, either be a demagogue (man of the people) and rail against the corporations and their waste and extravagance, or be a stooge for those same corporations.  Going along a middle way there must be an incredible challenge, I wonder if anyone has really done it well.

We are having a good time here, good to be away and clear our heads.  But as with any vacation, if you take some time to look around, you realize that you can never really get away from the challenges of the world.  They are here too, even in Vegas. And what happens here, might stay here, but what has happened in the rest of the world, affects here, and the leadership of Vegas must respond.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Transformed for Today and Eternity?

Recently around here a lot of talk has been about Marcus Borg.  For those who don’t know him, he was raised Norwegian Lutheran in the Upper Midwest and has since become a significant scholar and noted author with several best sellers.  His work is part of a significant movement that has gained traction in mainline circles, usually claiming to be a voice for “thinking Christians.” 

Having been exposed to Borg and many of his folks several years ago, I am not quite as enamored with him and frankly, occasionally offended by much of this movement's assumptions and presuppositions.  They claim to know much about what is actually taking place in congregations around the country yet when I examine their affiliations, I argue that many of these folks haven’t been in “regular” mainline churches (I would count Trinity as one of them) for a long time. 

My critique of Borg however, is not the point of this post.  He comes up because of his authorship of an article for Word and World (the Luther Seminary theological journal) for their issue on “Heaven and Hell.” (Winter 2011, Vol. 31:1)  In the article he states his reasons for being “agnostic” (his word, reminded us that it means “not knowing”) on the issue of life after death.  More to the point, he believes that the promise of said life isn’t central for Christianity to have purpose. 

To open the article, he uses an anecdotal story of being asked by a “sincere” pastor that if certainty for the afterlife isn’t the key to the Christian faith, then “what exactly is our product?”  Borg’s ultimate response is that “our product is transformation-the transformation of ourselves as individuals and communities, and the transformation of the world” (W&W, 12)

This I can totally buy into, I am all about transformation, especially transformational leadership.  This is why I am into coaching, I want to assist and walk alongside those who wise to be transformed in their work and also see their communities transformed.  And after the month of January K and I have had, we are resolving to restart 2011 and pray it can be a transformational year in our lives, we need that hope, that God can transform loss and pain into hope and new things.

But here is the rub, I didn’t get much of that in my seminary training.  In fact, I would say from some of my profs downright discouraged us from assuming any sort of transformation (this side of Rev. 21) was a pipe dream.  For them, it was all about the transformation that will occur when the trumpet sounds, that this “wormy” body will take on something better and the sinner will be redeemed etc…

Why can’t we have both?  Why can’t I believe fully in Rev. 21, the transformation that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15, and also believe that this life can be a transformative experience.  That Jesus is both the resurrection and the life and that both are possible and that God wants us to have both?

I think this is a real challenge for a Lutheran understanding of leadership and transformation.  We take sin VERY seriously, we understand the Bondage of the Will, we get that.  But I think we also have to take seriously then the transformative power of the Gospel not only for eternal life but also for today.

My concern is that folks like Borg, beginning with valid critiques of a church so often more heaven bound than earthy good, are encouraging people to give up on that eternal promise as well.  Enamored with this life, we forget about the transformation of the life to come.  So then what do we say when a good, hopeful life here is cut short?  Being a “know nothing” may work for college professors who are content to quote Romans 14 in an abstract sense, but this isn’t an option for me as a preacher, a pastor, a disciple of Jesus. 

I believe God has created us and through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is transforming us each day (Phil 2:12-13).  But for me, the gift of eternal life (the promise of baptism) is the presupposition for that purpose today.  It isn't the only transformation God is working in our lives and our world, it is part of God's whole plan for God's people.  That new name allows us freedom to act and live in ways we could never be if this was all there is.  And although it has been distorted and misused, that does not make it useless or something I can, as a pastor claim to know nothing about.

So can there be a middle for “thinking Christians”?  I sure hope so.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Loss Leader

It is a common practice in retail stores to put an item out "on sale" that is in fact a loss to the store financially.  The assumption is, if they can get enough people in the door, attracted by their "loss leader", they will actually buy other things at a significant enough markup for the store as a whole to make a profit.

Firms like WalMart and others have perfected this practice and have it down to a science.  They know exactly how much to mark something down and mark other things up to generate enough profits to keep their firms rolling, and more importantly, their stock prices rising.

But what about being a leader of a community that is facing real losses?  How do we do that?  When it isn't a gimmick to attract more dollars, members etc... but is actually the reality of the community.  When loss becomes real and can't just be wiped away by marking up other prices?

A couple weeks ago I commented about the loss Kendra and I suffered in our lives, and tonight our community (not our family, K, Annika and I are just fine) of Trinity suffered a significant loss.  This is new ground for me, how do I lead this community through its loss?  Attempting to make sense of what has happened, why it happened and where we go from here.

The good news here, and in any situation in which we are called to lead a community through loss is that we have a God who is a "loss leader."  This is a God who lead with Jesus.  Who gave all God had on the cross and counted not the cost.  Who claims us in baptism and gives us the name of "child of God and inheritor of eternal life."  This is a God who is a loss leader, who didn't just lead with the loss and then expect us to make up the rest with bigger margins, God led with the loss in order to make gain for all.  Romans 14:8

Monday, January 17, 2011

Belichicking Failure

In the total heyday of the New England Patriots, Coach Bill Belichick (pronounced Beli-check) was so known for his fanatic, frenetic attention to detail that it was known as "Belichicking".  He was obsessed to know every detail of the game plan, the organization of the team, who was responsible for everything that it became legendary, and the Patriots success was legendary as was his hooded sweatshirt he wore on the sidelines of every game (thus the nickname "the hoody").

They won 3 of 4 super bowls from 2001-2004.  And after "disappointing" seasons in 2005-2006 (they only won their division both years, but lost in the playoffs) they delivered finest regular season performance (sorry Dolphins) in the history of the NFL, going 16-0 and steamrolling opponents.

And then the wheels came off the bus.  The New York Giants shocked them in the Super Bowl, improbably winning (and saving their coach's job) in what must be one of the greatest upsets of all time in sport.

Since then, the Patriots have missed the playoffs once, and lost in their first playoff game twice.  For those scoring at home, that makes three consecutive playoff losses (despite fine regular seasons).  While the moving average on wins per year is still heading in the right direction (see graphic), one has to wonder if perhaps the gleam is off the Belichick rose.  And if so, why and what happened?

As a passionate observer of the Patriots I have a few thoughts.  But before I give my thoughts, here are my credentials and history here.  While my heart is with the Dallas Cowboys, over the past 10 years I have admired the Patriots organization so much that I am far more likely to watch their games than any other team. I like the way the team rotates players around, isn't afraid to make roster moves, ditch big name players in favor of a new younger guy, try new things and innovate.  All these pieces are still part of the Patriot puzzle, yet losing when it matters seems to be a new and disturbing trend in Foxboro.  Why?  I have three thoughts...

1) Failure to recognize scarcity: Several times last night Tom Brady simply threw the ball away when he saw the coverage had him foiled.  That works in the regular season, in fact it is a great strategy and use of time and energy.  But in the post-season, downs, series, possessions become much scarcer.  You just can't assume they will be there.  But they have been there so often, maybe they have forgotten that.  Their fourth quarter drive that ate up 8 minutes or so of clock, then came away with nothing to show for this.

2) Failure to RUN THE FREAKIN BALL: Their running attack is tepid, they utilize the short pass instead of encouraging the creative running of the ball on a regular basis (like they did on the successful 2 point conversion).  Those who know me, know anytime a team other than a service academy loses, I assume they should have run the ball more/better.  If Brady can sit in the pocket, untouched and still not find a receiver, you aren't running the ball.

3) Failure of Passion: The hoody should be feared, but I fear he is becoming a caricature.  Standing alone on the sideline, hood up, expressionless.  Now, I don't want Rex Ryan or his feet anywhere near a team I care about, but you cannot doubt he is passionate, involving others, getting input, giving input.  The hoody seems to be in his own world out there, befuddled by why they aren't winning and demonstrating little passion.

Overall, perhaps this is simply the result of setting the bar too high too fast.  As a leader, too much success can sometimes be just as bad as failure.  Early success brings resources, accolades and the assumption of others you are capable of anything.  But what happens when you come back to earth a bit.  There are many teams in the NFL who would love to have lost 3 playoff games in the last 4 years, because that would mean they were in three playoff games in the last four years (see Cowboys, Dallas; Chiefs, Kansas City etc...) but those teams aren't in Foxboro.

The Belichicking seems to have gotten off course somewhere.  The hoody has lost some mojo.  Where will they find it, will they find it?  The great thing about football, assuming you don't get fired, you get to play again next fall.

A post delayed

Less than a two weeks ago I set myself to a task, to blog each week of the new year, by tuesday.

I have 3 minutes to finish my goal for this week.  How quickly it is that we be derailed in our goals by reality.

This week has been one of the most intense, challenging and frankly disheartening of my life.  K has undergone more medical coverage than I would have ever thought.  We have lost a child just 13 weeks into knowing its existence and we are trying to find our moorings.

The most amazing thing is that K and I have been talking constantly.  We are in communication, on the same page.  We have been supported by our new community here in Fort Worth.  We have been loved and cared for by many, and we are grateful for God's amazing grace in the midst of loss.

This week has sucked beyond measure, been marked by gifts of grace, times of patience and times of great anxiety.  I give thanks, that tomorrow the sun will rise and that God will be there.  Romans 8.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Power of One Year

With the coming of January, we turn our faces to a new year and a new opportunity.  Certainly I am not original in believing that the New Year is a good time to make resolutions but I think this year I have a greater sense of the possibility of a new year. So often we can get caught up in a mindset of assuming that change must take multiple years.  That only incremental change is possible.

While certainly one must take care in leading communities not to change too much too fast, I also realize that I shouldn't limit the power of what the Spirit can do in a year by my failure to think bigger.  In the past year I have been reminded again and again of just how very much can be accomplished in a year.  How much can actually change in 365 days.

Since January 2010 Kendra and I have accomplished a great deal and also seen a great deal of change.  We have relocated from Wisconsin to Texas, begun new calls as pastors at Trinity (working together for the first time), seen Annika grow into a "real little person", K has finished a semester of PhD work and finally, we have become truly committed Horned Frog Fans.

But in thinking only about myself, I would also be missing profound change that communities we care about, family and friends have undergone.  Some of this change might not have been welcome (some change never is) but it is still impressive to think about how much can be accomplished when pain or necessity requires it.

While certainly DMLC would have preferred not to, they have said goodbye to their pastor, completed their MET process and formed a call committee.  Mt Zion has called a clergy couple, installed them and welcomed  them into their ongoing ministry and life together.  Trinity has gone through a self-study, fixed exploding boilers, interviewed multiple candidates and finally have called a clergy couple from Wisconsin as their pastors.

In January 2010, if you asked members of these communities if these scenarios would have occured, you would have likely been met with disbelief.  Yet they have done it, and so have we.

That said, here are some of my hopes and resolutions for change and process in my own life and the communities I inhabit.  These goals are the dreams, the vision that I have in addition to completing the normal tasks of my life as father, husband and pastor. In writing them down, I hope to create some accountability for myself so that in January 2012, I can think through why they did or didn't happen.  Although some are hard to measure, most of these are SMART goals and I believe they are doable...

1) Blog every week by Tuesday about leadership, reflections on life and theology.
2) Discern what future education I will engage in regarding leadership (begin program?)
3) Help lead Trinity through a Master Planning Team process, reporting by end of year
4) Create a personal website for my blog, coaching practice and general ministry
5) Gain experience by coaching 5 folks in 2011.
6) Run my final marathon in February and retire fully to 5K races
7) Lose 10% of my body weight.
8) Grow as a spouse, father and member of my family.

Happy New Year!