man and woman sitting on yoga mats on a wooden floor, stretching while leaning toward one side

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges: Communities

Discipleship is not just for individuals and ministry teams – your church or ministry community needs to be growing, together. The same practices that you use in your individual lives and ministry teams can be engaged by the entire community. However, a whole community tends to have an even wider range of ages, interests and experience with Christianity and Christian practices than you or a smaller ministry team might have. How can you engage and grow together, not just as individuals or small groups?

First, it is important to see your community as one body – not a bunch of individuals or age groups with separate but equal missions. Whoever you are and whatever your mission, it shouldn’t exclude a particular subsection of your community. For example, if your church is all about being out in your neighborhood, don’t just practice what you preach with able-bodied adults alone, but find ways that small children and older or those with differing skills and abilities can be fully part of that mission. That is how we all learn how to be who we say we are, by doing it.

When churches were full of people, all busy in their little corners, it can seem like we are doing good work. The truth is, creating individual programs for particular groups has never been a very healthy model for building community, but the flaws were hidden by the numbers of people in our churches. As church became less about “what was expected” than a faithful choice, we could see the deep cracks in our communities. We have small groups doing great work near each other, but not with each other. So how do we bring them together?

There are several church-based intergenerational initiatives with the goal of creating holistic mission and ministry for congregations, instead of the program-driven model that we have been operating under for too long. The specific language and activities of these initiatives may be different, but the basics are the same – congregations need to be spending time together sharing about their lives, praying, reading and discussing Scripture, and talking about how to apply what they are learning in their everyday lives. Not just the youth group talking to each other, or the 3rdgrade class, or the adult lectionary class, or the Presbyterian Women circle, but all together. The third graders need to be talking to the retirees and the teenagers need to be talking to the preschoolers and the young parents need to be talking to the grandparents.

How different churches create space for that to happen depends on the congregation. It could be during worship, or the Sunday School hour, or on Wednesday nights. Figure out where and when those intersections can happen best. Evaluate what you are doing currently and decide if you still need to be doing it. You may need to say goodbye to a beloved, but worn out, program.

Let’s Kill Sunday School (Before it Kills the Church), from Faith Inkubators, has some great case studies of churches doing this work in a multitude of ways. The provocative title speaks to the pain that might be felt initially upon giving up some of the things we’ve “always done.” But, ultimately, these congregations found that the pain was worth the transformation in their congregational life. Discipleship is not easy and involves tough choices about what is good for us versus what is easy and satisfying for the moment, but not for the long-run.

Who do you say you are as a community? Are all parts of your community participating in that mission? Are they participating in that mission together? Are you praying together and eating together and talking and laughing together? Do your 80-year-old members know the name of the 15-year-old members and vice versa? Do they talk to each other?

If your church feels like a collection of hit songs that don’t fit on the same album, your work will not be sustainable. Figure out how to be together and grow together, even if it means stretching beyond comfort zones and taking a few risks along the way. The journey and the destination are both worth it.

people sitting on beach, stretching their hands in the air while looking upward and focus on one man in foreground

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges for Ministry Teams

We recently talked about personal discipleship and how growing as a disciple means stretching beyond what is comfortable and safe. God keeps calling us to go further, which sometimes means relying on faith to walk on water. But we do not practice discipleship in a vacuum. We are called together to do God’s will.

We work together to discern God’s will and to carry it out. When we see the great need for healthy and abundant food, we may just drop off some food at the food bank. But we realize that if we want to end hunger we cannot simply address the symptoms of the problem as individuals, we need to work with others to discover and address the root causes of the problem so that it doesn’t exist anymore. This is how most of our ministries begin. People coming together with common values and a common cause.

Even successful groups and ministries can experience a sense of lost purpose or meaning over time. Sometimes the most successful ministries experience it because they have accomplished what they were called together to do. Then it’s back to discernment. Has this ministry fulfilled its call? Is there a different need related to our original purpose that this group is equipped to meet (or can become equipped to meet)? Are we being called to something entirely new?

We don’t need to wait until we get to a major transition to ask ourselves these questions. If we are regularly asking ourselves these questions we can see the path ahead more clearly. Or, even if the next steps are unclear, move forward with faith and joy into whatever comes. Is what we are doing meeting our mission? If it isn’t, what do we need to start or stop doing? Do we have the right partners to fulfill our mission? To help us have conversations about it?

Asking these questions is just part of keeping our ministries vital and centered on Christ. Just as in our individual lives, our ministry teams need to develop discipleship practices together. Prayer, study, acts of service, eating meals together – these simple acts done regularly and as a group helps you grow together. These acts prepare your ministry teams to live out their values and central missions because everything they do is centered on faithful practice.

A team that is growing in faith together, getting to know each other and trust each other more deeply works better together. When you are facing difficult decisions, when you are looking at your direction, when you are uncertain of the future, when you are ready to make a big change – a team growing in faith will be able to face these with hearts and minds ready to listen to each other and the Holy Spirit.

So, where is the growing edge for your ministry or ministry team? What do you need to let go of? What is a risk you need to take with faith? What are the steps you need to take to answer these questions together?

man bent over in downward dog yoga pose

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges

“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” ~Hebrews 12:1

“Run in such a way that you my win [the race]. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” ~1 Corinthians 9:24b-25

Paul and the author of the letter to the Hebrews both use this metaphor of an athletic competition to describe the life of faith. We do not stop once we have received the gift of faith, but rather we keep going, running even, to the finish line. They do not just speak of running the race, but of training to compete.

Even the most talented runner cannot simply run a race and win. They must train regularly, not just running, but warming up with the appropriate stretches, lifting weights, eating the proper foods. If not, their bodies will not be prepared for the challenge ahead. Faithful disciples are growing disciples, and growing disciples are ones who keep training, learning, stretching, just like athletes do.

In order to train and prepare, we have to set goals. And in order to grow, those goals have to make us stretch. What is an area in our spiritual lives where we feel the tug of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps we are feeling a call toward teaching, but we don’t have much experience or confidence in our skills. Or our prayer lives could use some renewal. Or you have been asked to lead something you have never led before. Or to fundraise when asking for money makes you incredibly uncomfortable. If we aren’t a little uncomfortable with what the Holy Spirit asks, we probably need to stretch a little more. How can we meet these challenges faithfully, without fear, and also grow as we answer the call?

If you are called to teaching, you can see if someone is willing to partner with, mentor, and/or train you. If you are hoping to pray more regularly, or engage it more deeply, you can use simple tools to schedule prayer time, like this author suggests, or try new prayer practices. You can do this with available resources, or you could consider engaging a spiritual director. You can use similar practices to engage scripture more deeply. If you are being asked to lead something unfamiliar, or raise money for a passion project, think about what partners you can engage in the work. We don’t have to do any of this alone!

Learning is often about doing. We learn best on the job, so to speak. So, actually teaching, praying, leading, fundraising, singing, doing mission. It will be challenging. We will make mistakes. But leaders are people who invest in their own growth so others may also grow. Trying, failing, and trying again are part of the process. If we are not being stretched, if we are not making mistakes, if we are not frustrated sometimes, we are probably not learning or growing.

Desiree Linden, the 2018 Women’s winner of the New York Marathon has this pinned to the top of her twitter feed:

“Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: keep showing up.”

Where is the Holy Spirit calling you to stretch and grow? What is the growing edge of your faith? What are ways you can answer that call and meet the challenge? These are questions we need to keep asking ourselves in order to be faithful disciples and leaders. So, let’s go seek some answers to these questions together!

seedlings just coming up in square pots next to each other

Focus on Leadership: Seeds of Joy

Certain seasons in the church year take a lot more energy than others. Easter is the primary holiday in our Christian year, so we give a lot extra for the planning, preparation and celebration of Easter. Afterward, we can feel elation at the wonder of a community coming together and reminding each other of resurrection and new life. We can also feel relief at being done with a big day and season, or a letdown after the adrenaline wears off. And we can’t forget that another Sunday is coming, and we don’t want to just phone it in simply because Easter took so much of our thoughts, time and energy.

“What’s next?” is a question that many of us include in our Easter messages. We know that resurrection isn’t the end of the story, but rather that we have a new adventure waiting for us along with our new life and vision. But how can we keep up a similar excitement from Sunday to Sunday as our anticipation and experience of Easter?

Our joy on Easter was not just in the glorious music or colorful flowers or small children giggling with their Easter baskets, but was made up of a myriad of small moments of joy. The smile on an older member’s face as they saw the children in their Easter outfits, the beauty of hymns sung together with gusto, extra family members in attendance, the welcome given to new visitors, the reading of powerful and familiar scripture – these and so many more moments add up to a greater joy. Likewise, if we approach each day the way we approach Easter Sunday, expecting to find joy around every corner, we will find it.

New life is given to us so that we might give up our worries to God. When we are less worried about ourselves, we can see beyond ourselves more easily. We have the time and energy to focus on the moments of joy planted all around us. We can also see how seeds of joy planted a while ago might be sprouting up in places we did not expect.

We can see children we taught in Sunday School, or volunteered with in a local community group, grown up and planting their own seeds. We can see how ideas have become reality – perhaps an idea to create a group for new mothers has transformed into a stewpot of missional work and innovation as their children have grown alongside the friendship and discipleship of the mothers group. Or a gardening club now tends to the yards of older members who need some extra help. Or a Bible study years ago spurred the creation of a prison ministry.

When we begin to look around, we realize that as important as the big days are – Christmas, Easter, ground-breakings for new buildings – the small moments make the most impact in the long run. The kind word spoken to a visitor on Christmas who is remembered when they return the week after Christmas, an encouraging word spoken to a teenager who shows up for a mission project, a hand offered to a grieving friend who can’t face a big celebration alone – these are the moments remembered long after. These are the moments that plant the seeds that bear fruit down the road.

Let our resurrection with Jesus free us to look beyond ourselves. Let us look for seeds of joy, and the fruit they are producing. And let us share what we see. Let us testify to the joys we see in the lives around us.

If you want to share your stories of celebration, both small and large, and testify to the seeds of joy you see in your churches and to those planting those seeds, please share them with us!

man in glasses looking upward - just his face in shadows

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.

woman wearing a coat and scarf, sitting on a bench praying

Focus on Leadership: 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.

3 old gravestones with crosses on top and sun shining through the clouds in the background

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.

large play red push button with 'easy' written on it in white

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.

3 wrapped gift boxes stacked up from largest on the bottom to smallest on top all on a wooden table, with greenery on the left and scissors and twine on the right

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.