Holy Week – Making Room for Jesus

Our lives are busy. And Holy Week is a busy week in the church. No matter what Holy Week looks like for your church – whether you have events planned each day, or only on Sundays – it can be hard to simply spend time with Jesus. We miss the forest for the trees or, rather, miss Jesus for all the planning related to Jesus.

Even the disciples struggled with this. After the last supper with the disciples, Jesus asks a few of them to accompany him on a walk. Jesus knows he will need some time by himself as he prepares for the terrible events ahead of him, but wants friends nearby, praying with and for him. They can’t join him in his personal struggle, but they can support him in it.

Jesus asks his friends to simply stay awake and pray nearby. But every time he goes to check on them, they are asleep! Yes, they have had long days, and spent much energy as they dined and conversed at dinner. Yes, they have been filled with food and wine. Yes, it’s late. We understand why they are sleepy, but we also know the urgency of Jesus’ need for friendship and support at this moment.

We also fall asleep in these urgent moments. We can get so caught up in the details, that we forget to stay awake and spend time with Jesus. So – if you’ve planned Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, what are ways that you can engage in, and not simply lead them? Can other people lead what you’ve planned? If your church will be open for prayer or self-guided stations of the cross, spend time practicing what you have prepared. If you are having a community meal, make sure to spend some time enjoying the meal and the company around you. Even at the last supper together,  Jesus truly engaged and enjoyed his time with his friends.

Find the time and space and practices that create holy moments for you to connect with Jesus. All he asks is that we stay awake and be with him. No, we will never fully understand what he was facing on the cross, but we can be with him, as Christ is always with us. This Holy Week, let’s stay awake.

Lent: A Time of Reflection and Rest

Lent is a strange time for pastors and other leaders in the church. We teach and preach that Lent is a time of self-reflection and examination, a time of renewing the connection to the salvation and new life given to us in Christ, time to shed bad habits that we just can’t shake. And yet…all of the work we do to create opportunities and spaces for this reflection and renewal makes this a very busy time for our leaders.

Instead of attending to our own prayer lives and Sabbath practices with increased vigilance, we spend extra time preparing special worship and meals. And this is not to say that extra time we spend working isn’t life-giving, or that it is unfulfilling. Most of us gain a great sense of life and renewal in doing this work for and with others. However, church leaders are notoriously bad at following our own teachings.

Lent originated with the preparation of new Christian converts for baptism on Easter. They spent time practicing being Christians – studying and memorizing creeds, praying together, fasting, shedding the material and psychological attachments that were anchoring them to their old lives. For those of us who have been Christians, for a little or a long while, we can forget what called us here in the first place. Even prayer, worship and study can become routine instead of new and exciting.

What are some Lent practices that help us reflect and breathe life into our regular routines of Christian life? Perhaps we change up our schedules. Take a few extra days off during these weeks. Or sleep in a few days a week when we have evening activities for church. If sleeping in isn’t possible, what else can you stop doing during Lent? Giving up a duty for a season can give you some breathing room to rest a bit, as well as seeing what really does need to be done, and what you might be able to give up.

Maybe you try something new – take a class, make extra coffee dates with friends, or schedule a game night, do something you are terrible at but love. You could take 10-20 minutes each day just to sit with yourself and pray, or dream about the future, or read or create something just for yourself. Don’t think about all the things you haven’t finished yet. They will still be there when you are done with your break.

It doesn’t need to be a huge change, but it does take a bit of thought and planning. Like the early Christian converts, we have to be deliberate about changing our lives to shed old habits, and embrace new life. We have to practice what we preach this Lent, both for our own sake and for those we lead.

Praying Together

Are you a “designated pray-er?” A pastor or church leader that everyone looks to when it’s time to bless a meal, or at a meeting? Even if that’s not you, you can probably name the “pray-ers” in your congregation. Prayer is a central practice to Christian life, yet public prayer is seen as a challenge only a certain few prayer experts can undertake.

For the last two months, Rev. Dr. Diana Nishita Cheifetz has written on prayer in Regarding Ruling Elders for the PC(USA). Last month, she wrote about the gift of prayer being offered out loud, in personal and community settings. This month, she talks about that feeling of being put on the spot in being asked to offer prayer, as a “designated pray-er.” She speaks of how nerve-wracking it can be even for “professionals” such as ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament to be asked to offer public prayer.

As Christians, we know we are called to pray. We might even have regular and fulfilling private prayer lives. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us not to pray like the Pharisee, publicly calling attention to himself? Instead, we are to pray humbly, even in a closet, away from others. And that is how many of us conduct much of our prayer life. The most public prayers we participate in are corporate prayers in worship. But sometimes there is a need for prayer in groups and public spaces beyond our closets and sanctuaries.

If all we do is of Christ, we ought to be praying a whole lot in public. Before meals, before our work days, before meetings in and out of church communities, after a day of work, after joyful moments, and after stressful ones – in other words, praying constantly as the apostle Paul says. And some of that prayer might be on behalf of groups, out loud, in the midst of those groups.

Rev. Nishita Cheifetz suggests having a short prayer template ready for those who are asked to offer prayer (including yourself) to make the task less stressful. That is a great suggestion. Also, like anything else in this life, being good at public prayer takes practice. Those “designated pray-ers” might have some natural skills of putting words together well at a moment’s notice in front of others, but even those with natural skills probably got good through lots of public prayers.

We can learn to pray more easily in public. When in doubt, we have a great prayer in our pockets – the Lord’s Prayer. A great meal blessing is a shared Doxology. And if you start one of those, others are likely to join in, taking the pressure off of you. You can also start with a simple template – giving thanks, stating the goals of the gathering, and how you hope to be blessed and bless others through those goals. You can use simple one-word prayers where each person offers a word of thanksgiving, joys or concerns, or hopes. You can institute a practice of prayer in groups that meet regularly, where you use different types of prayers that are written or outlined, and rotate prayer responsibility. As your group participants get more comfortable praying out loud in a group setting, they might be invited to pray for the group using their own words. All of these are probably some of the ways the designated pray-ers in your communities also learned to pray well.

As Christians, we are called on to pray, and to pray for and with each other when we are gathered. Practicing public prayer is not about showing off or being judged by a group on how well you put together your words. Rather, it is an opportunity to connect and open those gatherings more fully to God’s work among you. In our work together, in times of crisis, in times of celebration – these are always better when we welcome God’s presence. Because, of course, God is already there, we can just forget to look, and prayer helps us do that.

Read Rev. Nishita Cheifetz’ articles together as teams and remember what a gift prayer is in our public spaces. Take some time to discuss how you might practice prayer as a group, and as individuals leading your group in prayer, and then do it. Challenge each other to each take turns and get more comfortable in public prayer. And pass it on. See if you can create a congregation of “designated pray-ers” that the world might be filled with prayer.

Always Have the Funeral

On Ash Wednesday, many of us will have ashes placed on our foreheads with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” We are reminded that our lives are finite, that we will someday die, just as every human life ends. As we mark the beginning of Lent, a season of self-reflection and preparation, it makes sense to begin with a reminder that this life will end. There is resurrection from the dead, there is eternal life, but instead of rushing to the joy of Easter, we must understand why our old lives and old ways must die.

Ash Wednesday can seem depressing or macabre, and many, even pastors, can struggle with this service, and the whole season of Lent. Lent is rather funereal. But there is something beautiful in those very blunt words. We come from dust – not just in the Creation story where Adam and Eve are created from the very dust of the Earth, but in reality. Our atoms are made up of atoms that have been in the ground, in the water, in living beings over time, even in the dust of stars.

God’s creation is truly cosmic, universal. We do not exist separately from the rest of creation, but are intermingled with all of creation, and all of humanity. We are part of each other. Likewise, death is inevitable and universal for humans and all of creation. Nothing remains static. Even stars that bring light and life to planets die. And when we die and turn to dust, that dust will become part of another new life.

We are dust, just like everyone else. When we see the ashes on the foreheads of strangers in the street, and they see ours, we know how they got there, we know what they mean. We are not alone.

There is hope in that. And there is hope in the resurrection. We may all die, but death does not have the final word. This is what we proclaim in our words on Ash Wednesday – it is the beginning of a season, not the end – and it is what we proclaim on Easter, when we celebrate the certainty of that promise. It is also what we proclaim every time we have a funeral.

When we die, we do not need a funeral. We have already gone on to what is next. We may think it is too much to ask for people to go through. But we need to remember, and to hear the good news of resurrection. It can be uncomfortable. Not all lives are good lives. Not all deaths are good deaths. Like our self-examinations in Lent, funerals can bring up some hard truths. But we cannot live a new life if we are holding on to the old life.

Churches are like that, too. The Body of Christ lives on, but individual communities have finite life-spans. Churches are brought forth from the dust, and to dust they will return. And it is ok. But let us have the funeral. Let us remember all that God did in our lives, and the hard times, too. Let us let go of the old life, so new life can grow.

As at any funeral, we should gather together friends and family. We should tell stories and remember. We should figure out what to do with what has been left over from our lives – where a building or money or art or collective knowledge will do the most good. We should grieve the death of a community. We should proclaim resurrection.

Our churches may not last. Which of the churches the apostle Paul wrote to is still standing? Which ones have you visited? Some were in towns that no longer exist anymore, much less the church community. But their stories, their struggles and their joys live on. We learn from them in order to keep living the new life we have been given, and not fall into the habits of the old life.

So have the funeral. Remember and grieve. Then let it all go, and live into new life. For you are dust, and to dust you will return. And it is beautiful.

Focus on Leadership: Push Past Easy Answers

“Jesus!” – No, not what you might be saying when you took down your Christmas lights and decorations, but rather the ubiquitous and enthusiastic answer to any question at children’s time in community worship and Sunday School. Jesus the Christ, whose birth into the world as a tiny human we just celebrated. Jesus, a man who was (is – because, Jesus) also God. Jesus, who called the disciples, and continues to call us. Jesus, who is at the center of our worship and our lives, pointing us always toward God and God’s coming into the world. Of course Jesus is the answer to every question, right?

Well, not if I ask who guided the Hebrews out of slavery, or the prophet who John the Baptist was quoting, or who was baptizing people in the wilderness before Jesus started his ministry. And that matters because if our only answer to questions of faith are Jesus, and love others, we are probably missing the meaning of Jesus and what it looks like to love others.

Who are these “others,” for instance? And what does loving other people look like? For too many of us, we feel good about following Jesus when we are simply being nice to people in the grocery store, or posting “thoughts and prayers” on the Facebook post of someone grieving or in crisis. But what does it look like to push past the easy answers we give so glibly, and love the way Jesus loved?

Jesus found himself challenging the core values and understanding of the world at the tables of the rich and powerful. Jesus broke up petty fights between disciples over who would sit at his right hand. Jesus rebuked the idea that his death could not happen. Jesus had a deep understanding the tradition, people and law that formed the Jews. He quoted prophets and law and had a family line that included both royalty and impoverished outsiders.

Jesus did not accept the easy way or easy answers – from his own disciples, from the people they met along the way, or from the most brilliant Jewish leaders – he challenged them to go deeper. It was not that they were always wrong, but that too often they didn’t understand the depth and consequences of their answers.

For a young lawyer, it was not enough to love the people you knew and liked, but it was necessary to see people you detested as your neighbor. Clever rabbis who knew the law inside and out needed to understand that if Sabbath was not life-giving, it was worthless. The rich and powerful needed to see that empire is a human creation, therefore only worth the value we give it. The faithful had to hear that it was not enough to follow the rules of faith, but one has to empty oneself to be filled with God.

And none of this has changed. We are tempted to give and accept the easy answers. We say that people are “good” if they are nice to us, even if they say or do terrible things to others. We do not challenge conventional wisdom or group think even when we know we could do more.

As leaders, in our daily practice, in our pastoral care, in our committee work, in our teaching, in our congregational decision-making, we need to push past the easy answers. When something doesn’t feel quite right, it is ok to slow down and talk it out. When someone invokes the name of Jesus, but does not act like Jesus, we need to hold them accountable. When it would be easier to walk away from a conflict, we need to forgive and ask for forgiveness and seek a way forward.

And, if we do these things, those who look to us for leadership, for an example, will seek to do the same.

Focus on Leadership: A Generous People

Boxing Day, which falls on the second day of Christmas, December 26, is most prominently a European tradition that traces back to at least the Middle Ages. We may not strictly observe the holiday here in the United States, but it is known as a day for serving the poor. Or, closer to reality, those who have more in their lives deign to give some small portion of our bounty to those who have less. This sounds like a generous, caring act, but is it really?

Works of charity are encouraged in our faith lives. But we often see charity as a duty of faith, something that makes us feel good, for sharing some of what we have with others who do not have as much. We miss the heart of the act. The Greek χαρίς (charis – the root of ‘charity’) is not an act of kindness to people who have less than we do. It is an act of kindness that rises out of love. Love that is grounded in the grace of God. The kind of love acts we see Jesus do in the Gospels. Jesus wasn’t kind to the people around him simply because they needed something he could give them. He loved the people around them, and gave them what they needed because of that love.

Generosity isn’t a measure of how much we give away. When we have generous hearts, we can’t help giving what we have to others. Our money, our time, our attention, simply because we love them. A generous people seeks to love others, which means having relationships with other people.

As Christians, we follow a Christ who did not befriend people only like himself (and one could argue, if he did, he would not have any friends – any other fully divine, fully human peers out there?). He walked alongside the very poor and the very rich, those who were well-respected, and those who everyone tried to avoid. Men, women, children, people from his local area and people from far away. As he met and ate and talked and spent time with these people, he saw how he could give of himself for each of them. There was no one answer.

Unlike a box of leftovers, no matter how abundant or thoughtful or needed they may be, given to acquaintances or strangers, what if we start from a place of love? See and talk to people in our lives already, and people we meet, as equals. Build bonds of relationship – you don’t have to make everyone your new friend, but it is likely if you begin to talk and spend time with people, you will begin to see them and care about them in new ways. You will stop making assumptions about who they are and what they need based on their job or neighborhood or outward appearance or manner of speech.

That kind of grace and love will lead to kindness and generosity. You probably won’t even be able to help yourself. In this Christmas season (yes, it is still Christmas), let us start from love, and see what happens.

Leading the Way: Advent and Christmas

The days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are increasingly filled with busyness – meals, shopping, decorating, pageants (so many pageants), cookie exchanges, caroling, mission projects, crafting and, oh yeah, worship. All of it is good. The gathering, the fellowship, the sharing of joy and hope and resources, the cookies. But it can become overwhelming.

At the beginning of the year, we published a piece on showing up. And we still believe it is important to be present as leaders in the church. However, it is important to be fully present when you do show up. At this time of year it can be so easy to be constantly distracted by all the other things we “have” to do while attempting to enjoy and fully engage in the thing right in front of us.

Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Elizabeth Eaton just talked about this in her December article for Living Lutheran, Disengage the Autopilot. Turns out even presiding bishops can be so preoccupied they don’t even notice anything on their commutes to work. And that is what this time of year can so often feel like – you aren’t even noticing what is happening around you. Even as you are trying to make it all so magical.

Advent is a time for preparation. And preparation involves planning and making choices. If we try to everything we could do, everything becomes less meaningful because we are simply trying to do it all, not invest real time and energy into what matters most. So, as leaders, we want to model this kind of choice to the rest of our congregation.

You might even ask yourselves, together as a leadership team, what things must be done and which things you might let go of. Which of the Advent and Christmas events that your church does match the mission, energy and time of your congregation? Which ones have become disconnected from giving life to the church and its members? Then make sure to also make those a priority for your leaders.

Perhaps every single activity you are doing is amazing and life-giving, but no one person could attend them all. Don’t try to. Instead, make sure that the leadership team is represented at all of them, but only go to the ones that you can participate in and be fully present.

Make sure your pastors are not trying to get to everything, either, beyond stopping by – especially if you are the pastor. Pastors are not separate from the rest of the leadership, nor are they superhuman. If you want your pastor (or yourself) to be fully present and deliver amazing Advent and Christmas sermons, worship, education, etc., they need to not be overwhelmed by the season, either.

Show up, yes. But make sure you are working with your fellow ruling elders and pastors to make sure when you show up, you are not distracted by the next thing on your list. This is not just for you, but it is so that you can model how to have a meaningful Advent and Christmas to others, giving them permission to breathe and enjoy this season as well. Let us slow down, not set the holidays on autopilot, and truly be there when we show up.

Peace, friends.

Focus on Leadership: Asking for Help

ask help

As leaders, asking for help can be one of our toughest challenges. People tend to look to us for answers, which is how we got into leadership in the first place. Of course, good leaders are also good at getting help through delegation, so you would think we are also good at asking for help. However, even good delegators (who are telling more than asking) can find themselves with tasks they took on their own shoulders that become overwhelming.

It is important to always recognize your limits. We may be taking on tasks someone else could do. Or we simply may not have the same time to put into a project we’ve easily completed before. Complications could arise we did not anticipate. Or a whole host of other reasons we might need to ask for help when we didn’t think we needed it. When we’ve said we would do a particular thing ourselves, then cannot finish it on our own, we may think it shows a lack of planning or leadership to ask for help.

Well, get over it. You may have planned poorly. You may not be up to this task. But things still need to get done. Or they don’t. Regardless, if you get stuck, ask for help. Even if it’s embarrassing or you think it might burden someone else to help you. Even if the decision between you is that something actually does not need to get done, you do not need to bear that decision by yourself. It is always good to get input.

If you ask for help, you may find a creative solution to a problem you wouldn’t have thought of on your own with the input of others. Plus, people really do love to help. Ok, there are some curmudgeons out there who will make you pay if you ask for their help (and you may just have to live through a little hell to get important work done), but most people want to feel needed, and love to lend a hand.

Good teams require good communication. And good communication requires asking for what you need. You will not only get done what needs to get done, but you will learn a lot about what each team member can do beyond what you already know.

Make your team great. Get stuff done. Stop doing everything yourself. Ask for help.

Focus on Leadership: Sticking Together

We have talked many times about the great gift of community in our Presbyterian way of doing church. Yes – all churches talk about and encourage community (and if they don’t, it’s a red flag). But Presbyterians are very specific about the ways in which leaders coming together to make and support decisions is helpful to building up the Kingdom of God on Earth.

We encourage an ordered way of discussion and voting – officially Robert’s Rules of Order, but unofficially we also use various forms of discussion and consensus models throughout the church as well. Whether you are sticking closely to Robert’s, or have agreed upon another model, the goal is to not silence voices of opposition. As we have discussed before, these voices of opposition can help clarify, shape and change decisions for the better, even when they are in the minority, and do not win the day.

These models might also encourage us to not linger over a decision. If the answer is not clear after a healthy discussion, we might choose to table it until we have had time to let the answers develop. We do not have to draw it out when we are not ready to decide. Instead we can simply give it some more time while we move on to other issues.

In all of this work, however, it is important that the team we are working with – the session, a staff, a committee – agrees on how the decisions will be made, and that once a decision is made, supports that decision. Even if you did not agree with the final decision, coming together to support the collective will is a way to model healthy and faithful forms of discipleship.

We may not agree for a variety of reasons, but in most cases it is simply that we think another decision would have been more effective. It is a faithful act to support the collective decision. First, it is our decision together, no matter how you voted. Second, continued division after a vote is confusing and unhelpful to the church. Third, we might be wrong. If we continue to protest a decision and then turn out to be wrong, we will have cause division and disharmony when we were not even correct. But, most of all, it says that we do not trust the Holy Spirit’s work in our decision-making and in carrying out what we decide. We do not trust God to work through us, even through our flaws.

If you think a decision will cause real harm, there are several ways to protest within our system. But any sort of backdoor campaigning against a decision – even a harmful one – harms the church much more than helps it. An official act of protest fits within our agreed-upon forms of decision-making, and therefore is faithful to the will of the body, instead of working against it.

Most of all, sticking together on a decision encourages us to listen to each other well, to decide carefully, and support each other even in the most difficult situations. And any time human beings choose to come together, sharing their lives, we will see both the very good and the very bad. If we only support each other in the easy times, in the good times, in the joyful moments, we are simply doing what anyone would do. It is standing by each other in the tough times that marks us as disciples, following the challenging way of Christ.

This is also a reminder that we are not alone. You do not have to make this decision by yourself, even if you are the head of staff, the chair of a committee, or other position that sets you apart. We make decisions together so that we also bear responsibility together.

As we gather, as we pray, as we discuss, and as we decide, let us remember that we are in it together. Do not think you have to make decisions alone. Once we make a decision, that is the will of the group, and we will support it. This is how we walk together in faith, hope and love.

Focus on Leadership: Reading Together

Leaders are people who never stop learning. This is true both inside and outside of the church. When you bookmark a list of books Bill Gates read last year it is because you know that it is important to keep exploring, keep learning new things. Reading, in particular, has been shown to be connected to increased openness and innovation.

As a leadership team, whether a Session, ministry staff, or particular ministry team, reading and discussing together is a good way to grow in faith, grow in vision, grow in creativity, and grow in community with one another. You can pick a book or serial study that addresses a particular need or area of growth, or simply read something that stretches your spiritual imaginations.

This past year, PC(USA) Co-Moderators Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston have encouraged congregations to read Waking Up White together, hoping the entire PC(USA) might read together – One Church, One Book. Waking Up White addresses topics we must discuss if we are to fully embrace God’s call for us individually, and as a denomination – racism, and whiteness, in particular.

The PC(USA) is a majority white church that currently sees most of its growth among non-white membership. If those of us who have long held power and privilege in this institution do not address our history of racism, in this country and in this church, we will be refusing to see the amazing work God is doing. How do we grow and change together? This is why we read together.

With a group of leaders bringing unique perspectives to their reading and to your discussions, we can learn much more than when we read by ourselves. The idea of reading together is not new – we have all done so in classrooms and maybe book clubs. But we tend to think of reading together as an academic exercise more than a way to encourage growth and think in new ways.

There are many ways to read together, and many things to read. You might decide on what you want to focus on together and choose some options from there. Some groups might choose to all read different possible books and share what each person learned before you choose what you read together. You can solicit ideas from the participants, ask a trusted group of colleagues in leadership (such as the various PC(USA) leadership groups on Facebook), or, if you are initiating the practice, pick a few of your own favorites to narrow down the choices.

Stewardship, youth ministry, worship practices, new models for leadership and structure – all of these areas have excellent resources to follow up, as well as any topic you might imagine in the church. What are you excited about? What are you struggling with? The conversations you are having around the table will point you in the right direction to start exploring. However you choose to find something to study together, we encourage you to try it. What are you reading?