Reasons I Stay…

friends, hug, b+wDays like today, I think about the denomination of The United Methodist Church, and why I’m a part of it. Days that follow trials and verdicts, personal vendetta turned to personhood- and livelihood- stripping arguments and actions make it hard to remember.

There’s beautiful theology, and a structure that is imperfect but has room for movement (hey I used to be Roman Catholic, so I’ll take it!). There are great big denomination-wide programs that do amazing work all over the world, like the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

And there are people. Oh, Love Divine, the people. I love those people called Methodist. I love the vast network of Methodist(s) Federat(ed) for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries.

But the people, nearly all of the Methodist people I love, are hurting on days like today, and wondering why we stay “United,” and why any one of us stays in the denomination.

And so days like today, I have to stop thinking about my denomination, and start thinking about my local church. Amid rumors of schism or individuals leaving, what would happen in my local congregation?

There are two men in my church I think of in particular. Let’s call them James and John.  The one I’m calling James is an openly gay man, leader of some of our strongest mission programs, voice for inclusivity and justice, and occasional participant in things like Pride, and is actively saving all his extra cash for the next Reconciling Ministries Network Convocation. John, on the other hand, is chair of a couple of important committees, the go-to cheerleader for church revitalization and transformation, and has been known to give speeches at annual conference stating that he believes that the Bible says homosexuality is clearly a sin.

James and John have each said things that the other finds hurtful, or offensive, or wrong. They would, in isolation from one another, appear to be on opposite sides of a debate. Should each United Methodist have to choose to be Reconciling or Good News (a traditionalist group that believes homosexuality is sinful and wrong), they would most likely land in different camps. If our congregation voted tomorrow on whether or not to schism, James and John would raise their hands at different times, and the whole congregation would grieve the division between members held so closely to the heart of this local church.

Because, you see, James and John love each other.

James and John love each other more than they love agendas and arguments and “issues.” In fact, they love each other more than they love denominations and schisms and their understandings of what is right and just.

And Trinity United Methodist Church, at least for now, is the place where they grow in love for God and for one another, in their differences. It is the place where they love each other, and find out that love is more important than rules or ideals.

James. John. The love they have for one another as siblings in Christ, in a local congregation of The United Methodist Church.

They are a reason I stay.

Faith and Fallacies

My Staff Parish Relations Committee and I worked on our evaluation form last night. We dutifully and fruitfully prayed about and discussed the sense of living into Jesus the vine, and then engaged the questions on the sheet. The first one gave us trouble. We felt like the wires were a little crossed.

… Not because our answer is zero, although that also gave us some pause. See if you can guess where we took issue.

Has anyone joined your church by “profession of faith” in the last twelve months?

  • YES (how many?)  What are you doing to make disciples?
  • NO (why not?) What could you do to make disciples?

So, let me see if I get this: If people have added their name to a church membership roster, who have never been part of  church membership roster before, that is making disciples. I find this confusing, since Jesus didn’t leave the disciples with any such rosters when he issued them the Great Commission. And if no one has been added to the roll in this way, clearly that congregation is not doing *anything* to make disciples.

Yes, in part, this is just a poorly-worded question. I don’t want to parse words.

I want to strike at the deeper logical fallacy I see here.

I find it a false assumption in two directions to assume that a “disciple” and a person who has recently joined a church by profession of faith are the same thing. And, because I’ve been appointed in a place where we have some shared understandings of discipleship, or because we’ve been having conversations about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus for four years now, the members of my SPRC do too.

On the one hand, that’s an arbitrary bar to set. Plenty of people grow in and deepen their relationship with God and with others, becoming formed and re-formed as disciples, but do not join a United Methodist Church. Are they less worthy of being termed disciples? Never.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people on membership rolls of various churches who may at one time have met the qualification of having joined by profession of faith, but are not growing or deepening their spiritual lives, and are seeking or in need of being formed and re-formed as disciples. Do we neglect this need for spiritual care and formation because the fruits of this effort will never appear on an evaluation form? Heaven forbid!

It was a member of the team who reminded us that we sow seeds and may never see them take root. It was a congregant who wondered aloud about a person they knew who, having been touched by our church’s ministry, decided to attend a different church, asking, “Does ‘make disciples’ mean make more members of the Methodist Church?” It was a layperson who told the powerful story about our community meal, and how we’ve begun offering a blessing before the meal is served for those who want to participate (many come in closer to the table to share the blessing, while those who don’t wish to participate remain in conversation around the room), and how a couple of weeks ago, when the servers began to serve before the blessing, one guest said, “Wait. Aren’t we gonna pray first?” “Isn’t that man a new disciple?” the team member asked. These are the people of the church, owning and naming their own ministry, recognizing the transformation Christ is bringing in our midst. So I also want to say– are not they new and renewed disciples?

I assure you, our team did not remain in the place of objecting to the framing of the question to the point of missing the deeper exercise. Looking for the question behind the words, we talked about whether we had any new members (yes) and from where they are coming (mostly transfers from other United Methodist Churches). We talked about places for potential new “professions of faith,” including our current confirmation class– an opportunity to receive members who have thought and prayed and reflected and asked questions for over a year by the time they are done, so that is very exciting. We talked about the opportunity to reach out to people who are not affiliated with any church (those potential “professions of faith” such as the ones we had named) and discussed how, if we truly believe that there are some who are on the journey of discipleship, we might invite them to find a spiritual home on that journey at Trinity UMC– not because this will give us something to report on the professions of faith line, but because we believe we have something to offer as a community of faith.

Any question can point to fruitful conversation, I believe, if we can pick at it and pry it apart and uncover the spirit underneath it (or despite it!). This was a tough place to begin, because the fallacy runs deep– in our fear as a denomination, we have long prized the measurable membership numbers over the insubstantial feelings of transformation and growth– but in the end, this small group of people engaged the faith and calling behind the words.

I’m pretty sure that makes us a vital church.

Vital Signs – an alternative report

As I wrote yesterday, I really struggled with trying to input goals for my congregation in the Vital Congregations website. Part of my struggle arises because I do not think that this tool measures the right things and for the right reasons, but the biggest challenge arises because our tradition is one of storytelling, relationship, and connection. There is so much that Trinity is doing around these areas, and so much that we hope to be and are working toward. None of that fits neatly in a number or a chart. Numbers are interesting and important. They are part of how we evaluate our progress toward our goals. But they should not be the goals.

Instead, let me tell you the story of what Trinity is doing, and how we strive to live into our mission: Trinity United Methodist Church is called to become a free and fearless community  where people meet and experience Jesus, grow in love for God and each other,  and live fully and abundantly in Spirit-led service to the world. I believe these goals address the same areas as the Vital Congregations statistics, but with greater attention discipleship and formation, and add a few other areas besides.

1. Faithfulness to our membership, regular attendance and attendance as a percentage of membership – Trinity is in the process of “going digital” with our membership rolls and records, and then using the database to improve the accuracy of our roll and reach out to people we haven’t heard from in a while. We believe that one of the greatest sources of potential new members and attendees is actually the pool of our former attendees, invited back through letters, calls, and/or personal contact wherever possible. An accurate member roll will also help us better care for the members we do have, and make sure we see each active member regularly.
Of course we want more people to come to church for Sunday worship, but also for studies, volunteering time, serving, learning, and connecting. If we are faithful in our ministries and excited about who we are, we believe we will see this happen.

2. Activity in small groups for formation, education, and fellowship - We have found that we have the best response to short term studies or event-based groups. People are willing and able to come together for a finite commitment, or for a set amount of time. As such, we try to have one fellowship activity every 4-6 weeks, and we have had short term bible and book studies during Lent for the past two years, and have seen increased participation through those.

3. People active in mission – Trinity has seen a few members go on mission trips (both through the United Methodist trips and outside groups), but there are many more people who are interested in mission and are not able to go on a trip. Our mission team, which is a new team in the past couple of years, is therefore working to engage the congregation through presentations about mission opportunities and trips, inviting participation in local projects through area mission centers, and increasing participation in mission that happens in and through the church such as serving at the Community Lunch and Warming Center. The Mission team hopes in the future to be able to send a group from Trinity or in conjunction with another church on a mission trip. We wish there were places and ways to report the people who are in mission in the community and church through giving their time directly.
On a related note, the Lay Leadership team asked people to estimate the number of hours they had volunteered for the church, community, and mission in the past year, and the total for the congregation was 7,807 hours. We thought this was a great gift to the glory of God, and hope to see increased giving of talent and time in the years ahead.

4. Professions of Faith – We have no goal set for people joining the church by profession of faith. We understand that to be the work of the Spirit, and the fruit of our faithful ministry. We pray that we continue to see new folks choosing to make a commitment to God in Christ, as this means God’s work is being done.

5. Nurturing and educating new disciples – Trinity’s Christian Education program continues to grow, and we now have a small confirmation class beginning the exciting journey of exploring their faith. We also nurture children and teens through Sunday School, tween night, and a summer program. We know that the children of today are not only the church of tomorrow but the church of right now as well.

6. Financial Stewardship – Our Finance and Stewardship team is changing the way we think about money at Trinity. The chairperson, who is new this year, has brought a heavy emphasis on Stewardship of all resources and celebrating the gifts God gives us, in addition to continuing the important work of financial accountability for the church. He has led the Finance and Stewardship team in setting an ambitious goal of increasing our congregational giving (pledged, non pledged, plate, and special offerings) by about 30% in the next three years. This increase would mean (especially if costs grow only modestly and some of the improvements the Trustees are working on for greater energy efficiency bear fruit) that the ministries of Trinity UMC could be entirely supported by the giving of the congregation and steady income like building use. Church dinners and sales and events would then be for fun and/or to raise funds for specific mission projects.
To accomplish this goal, the Finance and Stewardship team is undertaking a year-round focus on stewardship and stewardship education with the congregation, focusing on a stewardship moment each month and continuing to place finances in the context of faithfulness with all God’s gifts.

7. Natural Church Development – These are the projects that have naturally arisen from our work and our visioning, but we also want to make sure this is where we are called to be and what we are called to do. Trinity has therefore begun the process of the Natural Church Development program, which will help us discern as a congregation one area that may be holding us back from going deeper as a church, and develop ways to address this place in need of growth using our greatest strengths as a church.

8. Pastor’s goals – As pastor I have specific goals for the ministry of Trinity church and the development of its lay leadership. These goals include:

  • At least two new people in new (to them) leadership roles per year
  • At least one new program, created/designed/envisioned and led by lay people started each year (past examples include the Thrift Store, Coffee House, and Warming Center)
  • Nurture and mentor the people who seem to be exhibiting a call to lay or ordained ministries
  • Focus pastoral contact on people who seem tentative about their involvement with church or their spiritual journey and in greatest need of care. See at least one of these persons strengthen, deepen, or begin their involvement with God/church/mission in a given year

Recognizing that there’s no set formula that would work in all places, I submit these stories as what is working here, who we are, and who we feel we are called to be. Perhaps it’s not better than the Vital Congregation program, but right now it seems to be better for us and where we are. I welcome your thoughts.

Counting the Unaccountable

It’s that glorious time of year when United Methodist Churches hunt down, compile, and report their statistics for the year. For a growing number of us, this is now part of a larger system of reporting of statistics year round, designed to help us measure our churches’ “Vital Signs” (part of the Vital Congregations program).

My concession: Numbers are good to have. I do think that we need to set goals and have ways to measure them. Although I try not to live my life by the thrill and agony of my weekly attendance numbers, I do believe they (and their near-consistent flat line) are relevant and important information in both my ministry and the ministry of the church where I serve. Although it by no means tells the full story, I do believe that the pledged giving on my church’s budget articulates a piece of the spiritual health and growth (and sometimes the lack thereof) of my congregation. Numbers of new members, and where they came from, do tell us a little about how the congregation stretches beyond itself in a time and place. These are part of how we measure and account for ministry, which on the whole is a nebulous, hard to grasp, amorphous thingy.

We thought the Doctor had it hard trying to measure spacetime. We need his thingamajig detector that goes ding when there’s stuff to measure the wibbly-wobbly, spirity-weiridy stuff we call ministry.

The problem, as every pastor I know will repeat, is that the numbers that we measure do not tell the whole story. Of course not. Ministry isn’t about numbers, nor is discipleship about statistics. There’s the wily, uncountable, unaccountable Spirit. Jesus himself seems to have preached his crowd of several thousand down to a core congregation of 12– and some of them weren’t too great at showing up consistently. Poor Thomas missed the best sermon in the series, and Judas fell in with another congregation entirely. All that costly perfume and the extra baskets of bread meant their budget never balanced, and the lay leader and chairman of the trustees (brothers of course) never could stop arguing long enough to fill out their forms in triplicate.

Numbers try to describe the number of people in Bible Study, but don’t tell how one person’s life was saved when he stumbled in by mistake and found a community of care. Numbers count the people who ate at the soup kitchen (maybe, if you fiddle with them), but don’t account for the way the meals were served and shared with mutual compassion and respect, rather than pity. Numbers tell us who came to worship, but not who left transformed– or who left hurt and angry and vowing never to enter a church again. Numbers tell us how many people gave how much money to the church, but can’t figure out which pennies were the widows’ mites. And numbers never tell us the tears shed, the hands held, the dignity upheld, the hope gained, the faith shaken or restored, how often God was revealed or pushed aside.

And this is all okay, if we treat numbers as only part of the story, if we ingrain in our system ways to tell the rest of the story: annual meetings, for example, where the congregation tells their story to one another and to their District Superintendent; structures in which the DS and the Bishop know the pastor and the church and hear their stories; organization from top to bottom that communicates that size matters less than faithfulness– something we find hard to measure but accept, because after all we serve a God who cannot be contained in our tables and figures.

But as we move more and more toward a corporate model, and give our numbers more power in the decisions about appointments of pastors and churches, we have a problem. The elevation of statistics itself is a problem, to be sure. But if we’re going to rely on all this counting, can we at least try to count more of what matters?

Just as an example, the Vital Congregations program defines marks of a faithful disciple of Jesus, saying a disciple “worships regularly, helps make new disciples, is engaged in growing in their faith, is engaged in mission, and shares by giving to mission”. I don’t disagree with that, but…

  • We count the number of people who come to church. Can we count the people who follow up on an aspect of the worship service by joining a volunteer opportunity or engaging in a reflection suggested in the sermon? How do we know people didn’t just attend but worshiped?
  • We count our new members overall, but a new member is not a new disciple. Last I checked, Jesus did not tell us to “go make of the world members of your church,” nor is the mission of the UMC to “make professions of faith for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” How do we measure our follow-through with visitors and new members to encourage them to grow in faith? Speaking of which…
  • We count the number of people who attend small groups or studies, but can we somehow measure how we “growth in faith”? How would we even begin?
  • We count the number of people who go on United Methodist mission trips, but what about other forms of mission in our communities? What about those who give of their time and talent to the background work of mission?
  • We count how much money people give to God and God’s mission, but what about the gifts of time and talent that people give?

In an effort to at least address that last one, this year I invited my congregation to report the time they gave to God in service both within and outside the church. Teams, committees, projects, meals, town boards, camp directing, and state committees are all up for the counting. Many people filled out little cards in worship to report back, but I also had to call some folks that I knew volunteered and ask them for their estimates. In a couple of cases, the numbers were larger than I expected, which gave me the chance to hear about projects and passions that my congregants give to beyond the church. In several cases, the numbers were lower than I expected, in which case I called or emailed the person and rattled off all the stuff I know they do for the glory of God, and we recalculated and celebrated.

And at the end, I was pleasantly stunned. In 2011, the people of my little 65-person average attendee congregation volunteered their time for the church and the community an estimated 7,807 hours.

That’s 325.3 24-hour days, or 10.8 months. If that were a 40 hour-a-week job, we would have worked 195.2 weeks. That’s 3.9 years (with 2 weeks vacation a year). If we calculated a wage based on the lowest estimate for what a volunteer’s time is worth ($17.79/hour), we would have given the equivalent of $138,886.53 (almost 85% of our entire budget) to the glory of God!

There are still many things we can’t account for: boxes of tissues and theological wrestling matches, hardships weathered and forgiveness offered. But in telling our stories, even in part, we seek to honor all we have done in God’s name, celebrate our faithfulness, confess our shortcomings, and challenge ourselves to greater service in the times to come.

What would you like to count? Better yet, what stories would you like to tell?

Pastors only work on Sundays, right?

Today was one of those days. One of those wonderful, glorious days when it may have looked like I did very little to edit a church bulletin or craft a brilliant sermon, but the church and the people of God were foremost on my mind.

I began the day with a meeting in Barre (next town over) with a couple dozen people who are looking into some sustainable and long-term means of providing housing and shelter for people who need it, both in emergency cases, and more importantly, in transitional and long-term independent settings. I may have mentioned that this is a burning passion of mine, and has been for most of my life. This group, while still in the very beginning stages, is looking at the intersection of emergency shelter needs, long-term housing goals, employment opportunities, and sustainable independent living for the approximately 250 persons without housing in Washington County (according to the Vermont Point In Time study conducted to count the homeless [~190] and precariously housed [~50] people as of January, 2010). Once again, it is wonderful to be with so proactive and empowering a group of people. We have a long way to go yet, looking at some big questions, to try to determine where to focus time and resources, assuming financial resources can be made available in these days of shrinking budgets all around. Still, to have a room full of people, some who provide food, some who provide shelter, some who provide job opportunities, some who provide state services, some who have been beneficiaries of some or all of the above, all committed to tackling these multi-faceted issues, it does my heart worlds of good. It may one day (soon we pray) do the community worlds and worlds of good.

I returned to church, to one such sustainable and empowering ministry (our community meal) already in progress, to take a lunch together with the directors of two other meal programs as we made progress in discussing ways to make our shared structures more efficient, accountable, and legally sound through seeking some sort of joint incorporation, all to ensure that people who need food get it, and maybe the systems by which foods are distributed can become more just and sustainable. Or at least, for the time being, the programs in place and function smoothly, effectively, and in ways that keep the IRS and the Secretary of State happy with us.

I thought about my sermon for a little bit.

I ended the evening with a half-hour finance meeting followed by a two-hour church council meeting (but, as we’re not meeting in July, it is my last until after maternity leave ends in October!). Over the course of these meetings, I witnessed incredible excitement (and only moderate frustration) about the vast number of programs Trinity is doing, and almost frenzied discussion of keeping all of the pieces in place amid the many events on the horizon. And I saw one congregation make a commitment to be gracious, generous, and deeply loving to another, beyond what I’d even hoped or imagined they might do. It literally brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t think it was just hormones.

There are days when ministry is frustrating, draining, pushing-a-rock-up-a-perpetual-mountain exhausting, when I end the day more frustrated and distant from God and my own sense of calling than when I started (yesterday was one of those days!). There are days when I not only fail to do good, but when I question whether I have actually done harm in my broken attempts to be who I am called to be. There are days when I am sure that I should chuck it all and go tend bar somewhere, because I can still lend a listening ear, but the drinks flow more freely and the tips are better, and no one is going to pester me about the color of the hymnals or the fingerprints on the banisters.

But then there are days like today. They are rare, to be sure, but they are special, and one of them can make up for months of the others. I live for days like today, days when I feel like I made a difference, days when I am surprised by grace and joy and the way God works in and through people in ways I didn’t anticipate because maybe it’s not all about me and whether or not I make it happen. These are the days I blog about, to remind me of why I do what I do, to tell you why you might consider doing it (or something like it) too, and to give thanks to the One who does make it happen, through and despite my best efforts.

I’ll sleep well tonight, thanks to some passionate people in Barre, some committed foodies in Montpelier, a congregation excited about its ministry and open to sharing its blessings, and the Spirit that spoke to me through all of them for the past fourteen hours.

I have, like, the best job ever.

I really do enjoy my job.

It amazes me sometimes. Sure, it’s difficult, and draining and chellenging some days. Sure, there are times when it seems like many of my days are filled with finding (and losing) paperwork, looking for prayers to go with a particular theme, and attending marathon meetings. But around that stuff, between the forms and the bulletin-making, there are the times when I dream and vision and imagine and strategize and listen and get excited and strategize some more. There are the times when I hear someone talk about an idea for a ministry or an outreach or a worship component, and their eyes positively light up. Then there are the times when I help that person work toward that idea, and I see on their face the joy and satisfaction of getting to do what they love. And I know it’s mirrored on mine.

I wrote a little earlier that I felt like I was ready to kick things into high gear and start in on some projects. This is what excites me most about ministry– the opportnity to listen to and with people for what God might be calling us to, and then together create something new that helps bring the blessing, joy, and love of God to another little corner of the world.

The current big project is the Trinity Community Thrift Store, a dream that came from Paul, a member of Trinity in Montpelier. Paul imagined that we might stop putting on 4-5 thrift sales a year as fundaisers for the church, and start offering a year-round thrift store as a more premanent source of inexpensive, quality clothing and household items in the downtowm Montpelier area. This is the best kind of project; it’s Paul’s dream, so he feels fulfilled and inspired about it, it helps the church in some ways financially and in terms of public relations, it helps people around the world because 10% of the income of the store will be given to a mission project outside of Trinity, and it helps the immediate community because there is a great need for an inexpensive shop in the town, so that folks can buy the things they need without using up all the money they have on hand for the week. I’m honored to be a part of making this happen, and to see and hear the buzz of excitement as this new thing unfolds.

And that’s just one new thing I see us doing together right now. There are a lot more ideas and there’s a lot more energy!

What about you? What exciting things are you doing in your church or would you like to do? What exciting things do you do with your work or your volunteer time? What makes (or would make) you say you have the best job ever?

Warning: Pastor on the Loose!

Maybe a church or two on the loose, too!

I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because they ordained me and now I’ve got an extra shot of the Spirit in me or something. Maybe it’s because I took a little time off over the past couple of weeks and got more rejuvenated than I realize. Maybe it’s the weather– well, I doubt that, since there’s not much inspiring about 2.5 straight weeks of rain. Maybe it’s because I’ve been here ten months, but it feels like a one year anniversary, since July is the normal moving time, and I think my one year of getting to know people is up.

I am a ministry fool this week.

I’m excited. I’m focused. I’m driven. I’m pulling no punches, going for broke, not taking no for an answer. I’m ready to push up my sleeves, rub my palms together and make a little ministerial magic. I’m ready to set things (metaphorically) on fire. I’m ready to shake it up, kick it up, make some changes, and get busy living the ministry we are called to live. Let’s do this thing!

To be clear, it’s nothing extreme; it’s just a little bit of everything– starting projects I’ve been wanting to start, having conversations with members of my congregations and with strangers on the street that really needed to happen, brainstorming sermon series and uses of space and community events. Nothing that’s never been done before, but all together, it’s exciting and invigorating, and I’m ready to take it out for a spin.

So beware, Gracies and Trinitarians! Beware, friends and family and support team members! I’m pumped and ready to go full steam ahead. I recommend getting on the train or getting off the track!

(mostly cross-posted as a discussion topic on the Trinity UMC Facebook page as well– what gets you excited about church? what do you want our projects to be?)

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