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Milestones: Key to the Spiritual Health of Congregations

April 10, 2014
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Adult Milestones Ministry

March 13, 2014

Vibrant Faith Ministries has just started a series of adult milestones (click here), those meaningful, memorable moments in our lives that focus on experiences many adults have. Milestones Ministry in congregations has often focused on children’s milestones like baptism or dedication, getting a Bible, holy communion, confirmation, mission trips, getting a first driver’s license, graduation, and much, much more. What has been needed for sometime are Milestones Ministry events for adults like getting a new job, a new home, loss of a loved one, wedding and anniversary celebrations, and becoming a parent or grandparent. The new VFM Adult Milestones series begins with Caring for Aging Parents and Returning from Military Deployment. These first two Milestones are not necessarily easy moments to recognize, just very important to our lives and faith.

What is exciting about recognizing adult Milestones Ministry in congregations is that it is a gentle and strategic way for more adults to engage—or reengage—with their own lifelong faith formation, something that for too many of us has become sidelined in the midst of busy lives. Now those critical moments in life have become the very reason for pause and reflection on the God of grace who dwells with us in and through such moments.

The church has a long way to go to reconnect with adults to nurture their faith so that they as adults can, in turn, nurture the faith of children and youth. As we say at VFM, “If we want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults,” meaning we need people of mature faith walking alongside our kids. As congregations prayerfully and actively seek to ignite the passions of faith for individuals, households, and community, I believe attention to adult milestones in the life of the congregation will be a major resource.

What adult milestones would you like to connect with your journey of faith? What adult milestones have become for you a source of growth and renewal in Christ?

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God Bless Grandparents

February 27, 2014

Research like that of Vern L. Bengston in his recent book Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations lifts up the critical role of grandparents in passing on faith. This research observation is not new, but it is revealing that grandparents get this kind of recognition over the decades.

A dear friend of mine from Norway Oddbjorn Evenshaug, a former professor of educational psychology at the University of Oslo and leader in the Church of Norway, has modeled, spoken and written about the importance of grandparents for years. In a recent blog post he writes, “The importance of grandparents when it comes to building meaningful connections between past, present and future, can hardly be overestimated. It’s about identity, about belonging and roots. Grandparents narrative becomes an important contribution to identity formation.” Of course, one’s faith life is a critical part of that identity formation, one that is deeply influenced by the stories of grandparents that link past, present and future with deep meaning and hope.

Unfortunately, I hear congregational leaders routinely bemoan the fact that older people tend to shy away (to put it mildly) from contact with children and youth in our congregations. Maybe it is time to elevate our older people, many of whom are grandparents and great-grandparents, of their vital role to our younger generations. Let’s find ways to remind them of the spiritual elder role of grandparenting. For example, when congregations have a Milestones Ministry event like giving children Bibles, faith formation leaders can invite the grandparents of the congregation into this experience, whether or not their grandchildren are in the congregation. Their grandchildren may live hundreds or thousands of miles away, but through the Milestones Ministry event, they can be encouraged to give their grandchildren Bibles and teach them some simple ways of using a Bible on a regular basis. I am confident that these same grandparents will be a gift to children in their local congregations, a gift that will also bless our older congregational members as well. 

I am guessing our grandparents are a largely untapped resource in our congregations and in our homes. Since many grandparents grieve over the fact that their children and grandchildren are no longer connected with a congregation, they are highly motivated to see changes in the faith life within their families. A congregation can lift up the role of these grandparents and equip them with resources and strategies (including storytelling) to bless their children and grandchildren with the identify formation of the Christian faith.  

Let’s help our grandparents identify how they make a difference in the life of faith of grandchildren (and other children, too). Grandparents have been and continue to be identity formers, valued storytellers, and effective evangelists of the church.

How does your congregation equip grandparents? If you are part of the grandparent generation, how have you been equipped and encouraged to pass along faith, identify formation, family stories, and cherished roots to children and youth? 

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Reclaiming the Momentum for Spiritual Care

February 13, 2014

I have been reviewing books in the field of spiritual direction and pastoral care from past decades. In the 1980s, noted authors like Eugene Peterson (The Contemplative Pastor) and Kenneth Leech (Spirituality and Pastoral Care) believed a new day was dawning around pastoral identity. Pastors were beginning to reclaim the role of spiritual director or spiritual mentor. However, there was a confidence about this conviction in the 80s that has not been justified by subsequent decades of pastoral leadership.

What happened? As I coach pastors, I observe an almost veiled desire for them to be spiritual guides to others. When I mention this role, I even receive a word of thanks for noting something that has escaped them for years. Instead of spiritual director or mentor or guide, these pastors acknowledge that they have become more like a manager of programs and people. It is not to demean the importance of management, but there is a confession that the initial zeal for spiritual conversations has been significantly muted. I have even had a coaching conversation with a pastor who was a trained spiritual director but who had not considered using that training and passion with the congregations he has served.   

My guess is that pastors enter into congregations that have stated goals and expectations but also a host of unstated expectations that are very real. The pastor is to be available for worship, preaching, crisis intervention, and management of a whole lot of teams, committees, and boards. In the midst of all the work, there is the need for “growth,” but the growth is often measured in terms of attendance figures and budget numbers, not the transformational growth of individuals, households, and other groups of people. It is hard not to succumb to the mixture of expressed and unexpressed expectations and pressures to manage a religious organization, and it comes at the cost of the kind of spiritual care pastors often thought they would be offering.

What is striking to me is the consistent response from pastors when I suggest that they explore how to connect with people, especially congregational leaders, in a spiritual role beyond leading worship and praying at meetings. Although I am sure not all pastors have been excited by the invitation, the vast majority do express real enthusiasm for the possibilities. At some point, we as a church need to name what is getting in the way of pastors (and others, too) of doing more intentional work to help people explore the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives, their obedience to this movement, and how that obedience shapes their life with others and with God.

I welcome your thoughts. What are the roadblocks in congregations? What written and unwritten expectations get in the way? What are pastors and other church leaders doing and assuming–and not doing and not assuming–that restricts the larger care of individuals and communities in following Jesus? I do believe there is a desire on the part of many to reclaim the momentum for spiritual care.

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The 60-40 Rule

February 6, 2014

When I work with congregations doing congregational trainings or consulting, one of the suggestions that often receives a strong affirmation is the 60-40 rule: let 60 percent of your congregational news publications (i.e., bulletins, monthly newsletter, congregational website and Facebook page, monthly and annual reports, etc.) promote what is coming up in the life of the congregation and 40 percent celebrate what has happened.

Our congregations tend to be anxious about getting people to show up at events so a lot of emphasis is given to promoting what is happening next. What seem to be missing are stories of how recent events have blessed people’s lives. One important motivator for coming to a next activity is that the last one was so powerful for those who came. We want to read and hear that through the congregational events, lives were touched, hope was kindled, enthusiasm stirred, relationships strengthened, and faith nurtured. People want to know how the ministry of the congregation impacts their faith in daily lives. There is nothing like stories of how the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the ministry of the congregation to encourage people to come again. 

Instead, our congregational news items often seem to project an image of busyness. Reading between the lines, it almost suggests, “Well, we might not be very effective in what we are doing, but at least we are busy.” When I was a student at the seminary in the 70s, a pastoral care professor said that often pastors prefer to be available than accountable. The message seems to be still true today. We in congregational leadership may not be making a lot of difference in people’s lives (accountable), but we are doing thing all the time (available)!

The good news is that in most congregations there are lots of stories of how lives have been impacted by the gospel and the ministry of the congregation. It is a delight to work with congregations and get staff, boards, and other leaders to do the research to get the examples. Granted, sometimes we will discover that an event could have been better. However, even then, it is good to know that leaders are evaluating that, too, and making changes for the future. The important thing to know is that often people do like to be asked how things are going, and leaders are often quite surprised by how appreciative people are to be asked. Likewise, the leaders are equally delighted to discover how ready people can be to give an inspirational story.

What is your experience of learning about the impact of the ministry of your congregation? What makes it hard to get the data/stories? What makes it easy?

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Words to Enrich Our Christian Lives

January 23, 2014

Paul Hill in his most recent blog (click here) notes language he found offensive and used repeatedly at a recent church conference. His blog reminded me of the importance of the language we choose to use–or not use. We all have preferred language in our religious, political, social, and economic worlds. Last month I was joining a number of family members from across the United States and from a wide variety of Christian traditions for a memorial service of a family member. The next day we experienced Sunday worship at a Presbyterian congregation. Soon after the service began, I heard the word “covenant” used. I turned to my niece Molly, who was not part of that congregation or denomination, and said that Presbyterians, as part of the the Reformed tradition, tended to use the word covenant. Within ten minutes we heard the word used nine times (yes, I counted). Molly turned to me and asked, “What word sticks out in your church?” I thought that was a good question, paused and said, “Grace, I suppose.” She responded, “I like that.” 

Language does help define us as well as aid us in our communications, including our confession of faith. It is hard not to get in a rut and limit ourselves to a certain vocabulary. The universal and historic (or catholic and apostolic) church has a rich variety of words, phrases and images worth contemplating and using in our journeys of faith. For example, Kingdom of God was a favorite concept of Jesus (some biblical scholars say “the Rule of God” gets at a better modern translation of Jesus’ phrase). This week I read a pastor’s blog on the importance of “sacramental.” He pointed out that as Christians, we live in a sacramental world. I liked that as a reminder of how God comes to us in very earthy ways.

Different Christian traditions focus on different terms. Some emphasize Jesus, some Christ, some Holy Spirit, some holiness, prayer, baptism, peace or the three-stage spirituality of purification, illumination, and union . . . and the list goes on. I wonder what Christian words or phrases might enrich our Christian reflection and action. Unfortunately, in some congregations, the language one hears outside of the worship service might suggest that sports or the weather might be the focal point of their spirituality. That, in itself, might suggest the importance of the words we use to shape and enrich our Christian life and faith.

This all leads me to wonder what language in the Christian faith is language that speaks particularly well to you. Is there a word or phrase that helps you get refocused day by day? Is there a word or phrase that you would like to add to your audible or contemplative vocabulary? These days I am giving attention to “rule of God” and “sacramental.” I find both those terms helping me live my faith grounded in today and looking for the love of God in Christ in new places. 

I would love to get your comments and your chosen words and phrases that help you–and can help others–enrich and bless our Christian lives.

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“You Are Ruining My Church”

January 16, 2014

After a two-month sabbatical, I am back in the saddle! My sabbatical time focused on the importance of spiritual care, the “care of souls”in the historic language, in the life of the congregation and for our homes and neighborhoods. Of course, for me the Four Keys get at the heart of soul care as the foundational faith practices that nurture our lives and relationships. As simple as that sounds, it implies endless possibilities and rich exploration of faithful activity.

Without attention to the basics–like the care of souls–awful things can and will happen (Who’s kidding whom? Awful things will happen anyway, but, hopefully, daily repentance and a return to the basics will help minimize the awful damage!). For example, at a parish meeting a woman yelled at the pastor, “You are ruining my church.” She said this because her four-point parish had just changed to a three-point parish that needed to adjust its Sunday worship schedule. The parish council came up with a new schedule that meant this woman’s Sunday morning worship routine was going to change a bit. So she blamed the pastor for ruining her church!

That screaming accusation said more about the woman than it did her church. To me it suggests that her church life has less to do with following Jesus into the world and more about stability, security, and the status quo. Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35 really gets at the heart of our life in Christ, a message we will never fully grasp or experience, but one that is filled with freedom for faith, hope, and love: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The point of practicing our faith daily is not about mastering the spiritual life but about letting go and letting God be the center. It is about emptying, repentance, dying, and other related images that suggest an openness to God filling our being. It is the story of death and resurrection to new life.

As the church, the body of Christ dies and rises daily, may the care of souls remain at the heart of our activity. May our conversations, devotions, service, and rituals and traditions in small groups or in large gatherings be open to the grace of God in Christ so that a newness of life may emerge that is less concerned with keeping “my church” the same as in the past and more open to wonder with amazement at how God is leading the church into a new day. And may each new day in the church be filled with words and actions filled with love and service to a world that needs lots of love and service, the kind that only Christ brings.

Where in your congregational experience have you witnessed the power of the care of souls? Where have you seen that care get lost in a myriad of conflicts that seem to miss the point of being Christ’s body in the world? 

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