• The Power of Naming

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    The following was written by Pastor Bill King in “Bread for the Journey”, a email publication of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Blacksburg, VA.

    “How many blessings do we still have left?” She had used the phrase several times, but for some reason I heard it—I mean really heard it—this time. I was at the Valley Interfaith Child Care Center, helping to deliver the baked good and tuition assistance Luther Memorial is giving to clients of the Center as a congregational Christmas Outreach ministry. A steady stream of parents had been coming through the doors, picking up their little ones, and leaving. So the director of the program was mentally taking inventory, “How many blessings do we still have left,” that is, “How many children have not yet been picked up.” Two observations about that choice of phrase:

    First, in that moment I felt very good about supporting the work of this agency. It is great when folks do their work with competence and efficiency. It is even better when they begin that work with the assumption that the person in front of them is not simply a beggar at the feast but both a precious child of God, deserving of all the respect we can give them, and the means by which we may be enriched. Yes, little children are amazing; they melt your heart with a smile. But anyone who has spent much time in a day care or classroom will tell you that sometimes it takes an act of will to see anything in a little face except a cranky, demanding ball of mucus-dripping energy. I have to think those children at VICCC are better off when the folks caring for them start with the assumption that they are first and foremost a blessing. I suspect my most testy encounters would be much improved if I thought of the scowling face in front of me as a blessing.

    That got me thinking about the great power of naming. If I call that piece of paper which is always on my desk a “to do” list, I think of those task very differently than if I call it my list of “ministry opportunities.” I can have “appointments” or I can choose to have “chances to serve.” I don’t think this is just a cutesy word game. Remembering that every person is a blessing, every day a fresh opportunity to make Christ known, fundamentally changes how we live in the world and our openness to give and receive joy in the simplest of encounters.

  • May You Be Recharged!

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    My favorite oldies radio station started playing Christmas music 24 hours a day starting the day after Thanksgiving and is continuing until the day after Christmas.  I never realized that there are so many bad Christmas songs and dreadful arrangements of wonderful carols.  When I arrived home recently after listening for 30 minutes while driving, I came in muttering “Enough!  I’ve had enough!”  The last song had included the words, “Santa Cutie.”

    I then did something you might think is strange–I immediately started listening to Christmas music.  I turned on an Andre Rieu Christmas album and listened to Silent night played with character and power.  I turned the volume up trying to cover up the memories of all the bad music.  I needed recharging and reminding what Christmas is about.

    In the midst of the “Santa Cutie” world that descends this time of the year,  I look beyond and find that Christmas recharges me in a wonderful way.

    My recharging always begins with the image of the manger–God’s grace.  When I think about this miraculous event, I am overwhelmed with the realization of the greatness of the grace of God.  That inspires me over and over.  God cared enough to come himself.

    I am inspired by looking back at Christmas memories as I grew up–Christmas caroling in the snow, worship and singing in the choir, being together with family.

    I am inspired by Christmas memories when our children were growing up–their excitement and spirit. I have so many memories that they overflow one after another.

    I am inspired by the many memories of candlelight worship services and even the snow that fell from the artificial snow machines on the roof of our church in Miami after each service.

    And then I think of that special Christmas Eve when I was reminded of our calling as Christians.  I am not sure how it started but at least one child and I began taking poinsettias to the hospital after the 11:00 pm Christmas Eve Service.  I discovered that many poinsettias were left in the church after Christmas so with the permission of the people who were not going to pick them up, we gathered them together and delivered the plants to the staff manning the local hospital early on Christmas morning.

    One morning was even more significant than usual.  We had stopped at the nurses’ station on the fourth floor when one of the nurses asked if I would go visit one patient who was awake, crying because she was in the hospital on Christmas.  I took an extra poinsettia into her room, gave it to her.  I stood by her bed as we talked in darkness and had prayer.  She grabbed my hand, pulled me down and hugged me.  She squeezed me so tightly that I almost couldn’t breath.   As I was leaving, she told me, “You were a gift from God.”

    I never saw the woman’s face that night but her words still inspire and remind me each Christmas of how we can share God’s grace.  We continue to receive the gift of the Christ Child with the knowledge that we can be a gift to others at this special time.  That recharges me!

    May you be recharged this Christmas to share God’s grace!

  • Council Devotions

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    As the year comes to a close and I started thinking about changes for the coming year, I began considering new devotional options for our Congregational Council meetings. Below are a list of five I came up with, but I’d love to hear what systems other people use.

    Potential Models for Council Devotions for 2014

    1. Scripture Passage plus the following guiding questions

    (1) What do you see God doing in this story?
    (2) What do you hear God saying to you personally in this story?
    (3) What do you hear God saying to us as a congregation in this story?

    2. Focus on a particular Book/Chapter of Scripture

    The group could select a portion of the Bible to study over the next year. For example, we could read a chapter in 1 Corinthians and have a brief discussion each month

    3. Answer the follow question – Where have you seen the Holy Spirit active in the congregation or the world since our last meeting?

    4. Select a devotional book to read as a group and discuss on a monthly basis.

    5. Focus each month on one of the marks of discipleship identified in Michael Foss’ book Real Faith for Real Life (a resource our Congregation uses already). Share a Bible verse relating to a mark and then discuss how that mark of discipleship is being lived out in the congregation.

  • Facebook Tools and Unhelpful Words

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    Occasionally, I come across online resources that I think are too good not to share.

    A couple of weeks ago, I saw a blog post from Josh Burns about the best time to post on Facebook. If your church has a Facebook page, the article is worth reading. He gives step-by-step directions on how to use a tool that let’s you see when the people who like your page are Facebook. It doesn’t identify by individual, but a quick look told me that our peak time is actually between 7 PM and 9 PM, but we have another peak first thing in the morning which is when we usually post. You can find the article here: http://joshburns.net/blog/?p=2810

    The second resource is an article from the Washington Post listing 5 Churchy Phrases that are scaring off Millennials. The article doesn’t have anything particularly unexpected, but it is a good reminder that we need to remember that what we say isn’t always heard in the way that we intend.

  • PEWspective — Watering down the Message

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    I entered the sanctuary of the church where we were worshipping expecting a wonderful All Saints Sunday and found instead a Kitchen Sink Sunday that opened with announcements from the council member of the day reminding the congregation of a meeting to be held after the service, then a 15 minute, well-done, Power Point presentation on giving for this was Stewardship Sunday, announcements from the Pastor as the window coverings that allowed the presentation to be viewed were removed from the windows, a choral prelude and then the service started. Over an hour and a half after the first set of announcements, the service ended, the pastor greeted the guests, and the congregational meeting started. At least I think it started because we left before the meeting.

    I exited shaking my head because Kitchen Sink Sundays, when we try to do so much at one service, do a disservice to each of the themes. In talking to my wife, I discovered that it bothered me much more than it bothered her. She mumbled something about how I always find something wrong. In my defense, I reminded her that I was even harder on myself looking for ways to make a service more effective when I was pastor because I feel that congregational ministry deserves our best. She nodded her head in total agreement. The pastor in me remembered how important All Saints Sunday, Stewardship Sunday and congregational leadership were.

    The announcement about the congregational meeting was disturbing because the congregation did not have enough candidates to fill the needed vacancies on their governing body. I thought about it a number of times afterward wondering why this was true?

    I believe strongly in stewardship and always wanted a superb effort so this important message could speak to all. Stewardship Sunday deserves a stewardship sermon and petitions in the prayer concerning stewardship, both of which were missing.

    Part of my disappointment stemmed from All Saints Day worship experiences over the years that have created moving and meaningful moments. My expectations and hopes definitely got in the way. The other activities lessened the emphasis of All Saints in spite of an excellent sermon.

    In the end, nothing flowed together. The congregational meeting started and finished the service. The service tried to intertwine two separate acts, but failed to tie them together. As a result, I left thinking how three wonderful opportunities were missed rather than thinking how God came to me and helped me to be a saint or how God’s grace is so significant that we need to respond with our time, talent and money–including leadership.

    I read an article last week about multi-tasking and the conclusion of the study was that multi-taking reduces the quality of the work on any one task. I felt the same way after the service and I was not a part of the congregational meeting.

    Part of me is always asking how we as churches can be more effective in getting the good news into the lives of all people. I do not want God’s message watered down. Congregational ministry deserves our best, so despite the temptation to do everything when we have people gathered in one place, perhaps it is best if pick one and focus on doing it as well as possible.

  • PEW Perspective – Conflict does not have to define a congregation

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    Observations going from pulpit to pew

    After an interim of over two and a half years, my wife and I are visiting congregations looking for a church home in our community. Each week, I am seeing church life from a PEWspective.

    I went to the first church we attended with deep reservations. I knew the story of conflict within the congregation that had resulted in a serious split where many left. To her credit, my wife was not concerned about the conflict and didn’t want to know the story that I tried to share. She merely wanted to attend so I stopped trying to tell her what I knew and we went.

    Conflict has always made me feel uneasy even though I have faced it head-on in my two interims. From the moment we reached the front steps, I discovered that I was in for a wonderful surprise. This was the friendliest congregation I had ever attended. People went out of their way to speak to us and make us welcome. They did not just speak, but shared their stories and one woman even invited us to attend a Bible study that she said “made a difference in my life.” The most telling moment happened when the two women on the pew in front of us were talking to each other after we had talked. They were discussing a women’s event held the day before and one of the women then said, “Isn’t it wonderful to be part of a happy, helping church again.”

    Could it be possible that out of the conflict and split that the people were beginning to discover anew what it meant to be the people of God at this place? I had not expected that reaction. The two women continued talking about what it meant to be happy and helping. I immediately wondered if the people who had left might be saying the same thing–”Isn’t it wonderful to be part of a happy, helping church again.”

    Conflict is a black hole that absorbs all the energy and enthusiasm leaving no time for anything else. Taking a side in the dispute is more important that listening to God’s call to mission and ministry which gets pushed to the side as the conflict escalates and is played out.

    I’m sure that both sides in this conflict will face difficult times ahead but I was taught an important lesson. I was defining the congregation in terms of conflict but they taught me that conflict does not have to define a congregation. When we begin to concentrate on reaching out in our Lord’s name, we begin to move past conflict to a happy and helping fellowship of believers.

  • Small Catechism Study

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    I just came across a Small Catechism study produced by Wartburg Seminary called, “Connections: Faith and Life“.   According to their introductory material, “the goal of Connections is to help participants meet God in their everyday lives. The material is designed to help them connect faith and daily living by moving back and forth between God and self, self and others, world and Word.”(pg. 2, Intro).

    There are four units - Unit One: Living Faithfully (The Ten Commandments); Unit Two: Living Confidently (The Apostles’ Creed); Unit Three: Living Spiritually (The Lord’s Prayer); and Unit Four: Living Freely (The Sacraments) and each unit has several sessions.

    The material is free and it looks like it is designed to be used in a variety of settings.

  • Help Starting a New Road

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    I spent last week end as a chaplain at New Road 31 at the Kinard Camp and Conference Center near Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina.  The event, held for the 31st consecutive year, is for people who have recently lost spouses.  The gathering was valuable for me when I lost my wife, Nancy, but it had been 11 years since I had been able to serve as a chaplain.  These are my reflections about what I relearned or saw from a different perspective.

    · The experts in helping with the grief and loss associated with the death of a spouse are the people who have gone through it and are able to share their experiences in a helpful way.  The emphasis for me is on helpful.  Each leader for the small group discussions had been through a previous new road and had been willing to return as a brother or sister guiding the way.  They were great at listening and guiding the experience in a super-supportive manner.  Around 20 other past participants came back to provide help in a variety of different ways.

    · Almost all the participants shared their anxieties as they thought about backing out and not attending.   Just coming in to register was daunting.  At a previous New Road, one man could not bring himself to go in on Friday evening when he arrived so he spent the night in his car in the parking lot..  The next morning, he decided to walk in for breakfast.  The event is now so important to his new road that he was one of the helpful team leaders this year.

    · The death of a spouse is traumatic enough but so many happenings around the death create even more trauma.  The issues were difficult and different for each person ranging from the burden of finances to unhelpful family and friends.  The bottom line is that most participants were dealing with numerous other significant issues in addition to the death.

    · Guilt is alive and rampant in the lives of those who have lost a spouse.  We have learned exceptionally well to accept guilt  and my experiences would suggest that guilt becomes magnified under stress.  Guilt never helps.  Repeat that to yourself over and over again.

    · Advice from experts can be helpful.  We had significant sharing from a hospice chaplain, a psychologist who works with grief and loss, an estate lawyer and an expert in Social Security.  Not all needed everything that was said but all needed some part of everything that was said.  You have to be the expert and know what is helpful to you.

    Every one of the participants with whom I spoke told me how much they had benefited from the experience.  As one woman said to me, “I feel like a new person.”  Not only was she a new person but she now has a new road.

  • Helpful Questions

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    Four Helpful Questions for Congregations to ask?

    From Pastor Rick Goeres

    What are we doing well?

    What do we need to strengthen?

    What do we need to start doing?

    What do we need to stop doing?

    For Council Meetings

    From Pastor James Armentrout

    Where have you seen the Holy Spirit active in the congregation or the world since our last meeting?

  • Renovate or Die

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    I recently finished reading a wonderful, helpful book called, “Renovate or Die: Ten Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission” by Rev. Bob Farr, the director of the Center for Congregational Excellence for the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church. If you are interested in focusing your congregation on mission and ministry, then I highly recommend you pick up the book.

    Just as many others have done, Farr makes the case that congregations need to adapt to today’s changing world and he invites congregations to stop redecorating all their old programs and ideas and instead undertake the a complete renovatation to help them focus on mission and ministry.  In this way, Farr’s book is similar to many other books in ‘the church needs to change’ category.

    What made Farr’s book different for me was the practical advice he offers for achieving mission-focused change.  He offers concrete ideas for new approaches to ministry.  He recommends the  best resources he has encountered in areas like spiritual gift identification.  He asks questions that open the door to an in-depth examination of current ministry practices like, ‘If someone has been a part of your congregation for 40 years, how do you expect their lives to be transformed? ‘   I wrote notes all over the margins while I was reading and his ideas have already inspired me to begin a conversation about new ways forward for our congregation.

    If you are interested, the book is currently on sale at Cokesbury.com.