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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Holy Spirit I Pray

A copy of Jack Levison's new book "Holy Spirit I Pray," published by Paraclete Press, arrived on my doorstep the other day. It was a surprise advance copy delivered from the publisher so that I might give a review and share my thoughts. So - here they are!

First word: Jack never disappoints! His focus on the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is a gift to the larger church. His insights into the workings of the Spirit, the role of the Spirit, and our access to the Spirit offer readers a fresh way to experience the presence of God in their lives. Moreover, this book, a book of prayers written to the Holy Spirit, invite you and I into a more personal connection to God by interacting more directly with Spirit of God.

 As he writes in the introduction, prayers written to the Holy Spirit are rare throughout history - a scattering peppered here and there. "Most Christians," he writes, "tend to see the Holy Spirit as a medium of prayer and worship..."

In this concise book,  prayers are offered for the morning, nighttime, discernment and more, and each prayer is accompanied by a bit of scripture applicable to the prayer. And as is usual, Jack writes in a way that engages both heart and mind while speaking to God - to the Holy Spirit. This might be a great addition to your Lenten practices this year, a season to focus on the provocative activity of the Spirit in and through your life as you speak to the Breath of God. I recommend this as a great addition to your devotional library.

Here are a couple of examples from the book:

Holy Spirit

I've no need for grand visions 
             strategic plans 
             blueprints for success. 

 Bury me instead among the faint 
             the weary 
             the worn. 

 I've no need for great speeches 
            striking sermons 
           thunderous applause. 

Busy me instead with laughter 
           a wordplay or two 

Or this, from the sections on "prayers in time of crisis:"

Holy Spirit, prompt me to wait,
                       to pause
                       to hear my own breath.

Holy Spirit, teach me to listen,
                       to deliberate
                       to consider your own breath.

Holy Spirit, prod me to speak
                       in hushed tones
                       in wisdom whispered.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

Message of renewal

Dear friends

So it's the new year and one of the commitments I'm making (and writing down in public!) is to post something on this blog a weekly basis for 2016. One of the ways I'm hoping to make sure that happens is that I've deleted my Facebook account. Don't misunderstand. I don't think FB is evil or anything like that. It can be a very good thing. The potential for connection and reconnection is vast. Granted, there is the danger of pseudo-friendship and pseudo-connection, but that's a conversation for another day.

For me, Facebook this year is a bit like the boats the James and John had when offered to follow Jesus. Boats are good things - necessary things when it comes to fishing. But for the work they needed to do in the near future, boats were going to get in the way. They had to leave the boats and nets behind. So...FB is my boat this year. Potentially good - but not for my immediate future.

As my first post this year, I offer you the first message I preached this year - the first Sunday of the year - invited back to my previous appointment in Scituate, MA. It was an amazing thing to be invited back, for one, but even more special because some young people who were just elementary students when I was there were being confirmed that day, and I got to be a part. The sound quality might be a bit challenging - no doubt because I can't stay still while I'm preaching. But you can here it for the most part - it's an invitation for all churches to consider what's required to be renewed - to make the course corrections needed every so often. The text on which the message is based is Colossians 3:12 - 17. May it be a blessing.

For message, click HERE

Sunday, June 21, 2015

I've been thinking a lot about the recent experience at the New England Annual Conference, the annual gathering of United Methodist pastors and lay leaders in the New England area. I spent a fair amount of time at the back of the room watching the process - the rhythm - the ebb and flow of our gathering. This year the event was laden with emotion. I encountered people from every arena: long-time leaders, first timer attendees, experienced parliamentarians, conservative, progressive - whatever label you might use - people that found themselves overwhelmed with emotion. I mean overwhelmed. Tears. Explosive expletives. Heartache. And this emotion continues to show up on social media.

Unfortunately, fingers are/were occasionally (often?) pointed - usually outward. Very few own their own contribution to the turmoil. It was always someone else's fault for the pain - for the hurt. Those with parliamentarian prowess flexed their muscles to make sure things went their way. Those with personal agenda were sure to jump to the microphone while so many sat and watched. People I love and respect were feeling pushed, bullied, ignored, disrespected and so much more. In the midst of it all, we ignored our own rules for the benefit of personal agenda. Those with a view to larger issues, the "big picture," beyond the rules of Robert were frustrated even as they failed to offer the necessary clarity and structure necessary to help the gathered body do what they needed to make good decisions.

In all of that, I was struck with a different "big picture" issue. The reality of change.

I don't pretend to have "THE" answer to what was going on. I don't presume to think that this is sole reason that our gathering this year was filled with so much angst, so much dissension, so much heartache.  But I do think it's worth spending some time reflecting on the dynamics of change and how it impacted this year's gathering. This year, we changed many things for our gathering. We changed location. We changed our voting method. We had new leadership. We dealt with new housing, new ways of finding meals, new parking... lots of new things. Change itself unsettles us, particularly change that is imposed - change that comes from outside. And all of this is happening in the context of a culture that has changed DRAMATICALLY around us. This year's Episcopal Address only revealed the tip of the iceberg in terms of the changing landscape of religion and church in New England.

In the midst of all of the change we were experiencing, we were asked to make significant decisions about our future: closing a camp, closing churches, resolutions and motions and suspensions of rules and all the rest while we were experiencing so much more. Issues related to change.

Ken Blanchard has spent a lifetime looking at how organizations operate - what makes them operate well - and what can get in the way of optimum performance. This article highlights 7 dynamics in play with change. I have my own take on how these 7 things showed up in our gathering, but I offer them without interpretation at this point. Maybe it can be a beginning of a conversation. I've copied the article below, but here's the link to the article itself. I wonder if reflecting on the dynamics of change alone might bring us to a new place of conversation - of being able to offer grace to each other - of bringing us back to a common purpose.

Seven Dynamics of Change

Whatever the kinds of change that people encounter, there are certain patterns of response that occur and re-occur.  It is important that change leaders understand some of  these patterns, since they are normal outcomes of the change process.  Understanding them allows leaders to avoid over-reacting to the behaviours of people who, at times, seem to be reacting in mysterious, non-adaptive ways. 
Ken Blanchard, well known management consultant, has described seven dynamics of change designed to help managers better address employee reactions to change.  They are worth summarizing here. 

People will feel awkward, ill-at-ease and self-conscious 

Whenever you ask people to do things differently, you disrupt their habitual ways of doing things.  This tends to make people feel awkward or uncomfortable as they struggle to eliminate the old responses and learn the new.   Think back to your own experience and you will discover this theme.  Whether it be learning to use a computer, the first time picking up your infant, or dealing with a new reporting relationship, recall the self-consciousness that you probably felt.  People want to get it right, and fear that they will appear inadequate.  

People initially focus on what they have to give up 

Even for positive changes such as promotions, or those that result in more autonomy or authority, people will concentrate on what they will be losing.  As a change leader you need to acknowledge the loss of the old ways, and not get frustrated at what may seem to be an irrational or tentative response to change. 

People will feel alone even if everyone else is going through the same change 

Everyone feels (or wants to feel) that their situation is unique and special.  Unfortunately, this tends to increase the sense of isolation for people undergoing change.  It is important for the change leader to be proactive and gentle in showing that the employee's situation is understood.  If  employees see YOU as emotionally and practically supportive during the tough times your position will be enhanced and the change will be easier. 

People can handle only so much change 

On a personal level, people who undergo too much change within too short a time will become dysfunctional, and in some cases may become physically sick.  While some changes are beyond our control, it is important not to pile change upon change upon change.  While changes such as downsizing bring opportunity to do other positive things, the timing of additional changes is important.  If you are contemplating introducing changes (that are under your control), it may be a good idea to bounce your ideas off employees.  A good question to ask is "How would you feel if....." 

People are at different levels of readiness for change 

Some people thrive and change.  It's exciting to them.  Others don't.  It's threatening to them.  Understand that any change will have supporters and people who have difficulty adapting.  In time many people who resist initially will come onside.  Consider that those people who are more ready for the change can influence others who are less ready.   Open discussion allows this influence process to occur. 

People will be concerned that they don't have enough resources 

People perceive that change takes time and effort, even if it has the long term effect of reducing workload.  They are correct that there is a learning time for most change, and that this may affect their work.  It is important for change leaders to acknowledge that this may occur, and to offer practical support if possible.  In the downsizing scenario this will be even more crucial, since resources themselves are cut.  Consider following the downsizing with a worksmart process, whereby job tasks are
reviewed to examine whether they are still necessary. 

If you take the pressure off, people will revert to their old behaviour 

If people perceive that you are not serious about doing things the new way, they will go back to the old way.  Sometimes this ill be in the open, and sometimes this will be covert.  While Blanchard uses the word pressure, I prefer to think of it in terms of leadership role.  The leader must remind people that there is a new course, and that the new course will remain.  Coaching towards the new ways is also important.   
It is important for leaders to anticipate and respond to employee concerns and feelings, whether they are expressed in terms of practical issues, or emotional responses.  When planning for, and anticipating change, include a detailed reaction analysis.  Try to identify the kinds of reactions and questions that  employees will have, and prepare your responses.  Remember that the success of any change rests with the ability of the leaders to address both the emotional and practical issues, in that order.  

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Now that Frost has meddled with my airport lounge life, I thought I should read his book (Incarnate). Here's a quote regarding excarnation:

"Ultimately, all this has resulted in a disembodied approach to the mission of the church, a drift toward nonincarnational expressions, where disembodied advocacy is preferable to the dirt and worms and compost of localized service. We see this in the preference for short- term mission trips and “treasure hunting” approaches to evangelism, where we are expected to minister to strangers we’ll never see again."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Going deeper

I recently attended Exponential, a church planting conference, in Florida. I went to a workshop led by Michael Frost that really challenged me - issues he raised that, as he views America from his native Australia, strike him as antithetical to deeper community - authentic community - obstacles to the kind of community envisioned by Jesus when he gave birth to the church.

He highlighted four characteristics:

1) Excarnation - Excarnation is the opposite of incarnation. You won't find the word in most dictionaries, but it is a real word - referring to a real ritual. Excarnation was a practice of removing flesh from bones - often done when someone was killed far from their home country. This allowed the body to be transported back to the home country in days when that would have been more difficult if flesh was stilled involved. Cheery stuff, huh?

Anyway, referring to a book called "A Secular Age" by Charles Taylor, Frost talked about how knowledge in today's culture has been "defleshed" in many places, particularly the middle class, suburban experience. Knowledge used to be embedded in the bodies of people. For example, that great recipe for homemade bread - it wasn't in a recipe book. People didn't look it up on an app, worrying about whether or not they added exactly 1/2 tspn. of baking powder, or an ounce of vanilla. The knowledge was in the finger tips and on the tongue. It was enfleshed - incarnated - and shared with others in the same way.

Frost challenged those at the workshop to relate this to the church - to the knowledge once embedded in the community of faith on how to live the ways of Jesus that now is knowledge that exists outside the community. This is my application to his ideas - it's now contained on our bible app, our prayer app, our small group app, etc.  Our knowledge of scripture, prayer, other practices of faith (in many places, this includes service - we write the check but don't build relationship) has been defleshed. Our experience of community is often mediated rather than direct.

2) Airport Lounge - The second component or characteristic of modern life is that for many, it's bit like living in an airport lounge. Consider the metaphor. Airport lounge experience is temporary. It's liminal, a transitory experience. No one expects to be in the airport lounge for long. It's a stop over on the way to someplace else. It's superficial - just touching down from time to time but never really living there. It's having a home in a neighborhood, but not actually knowing the neighbors, not really. Knowing a neighbor's name isn't knowing them. Knowing them is knowing the details of life. It's knowing the kids, the occupations, the interests, dreams, hopes, fears, etc.

Consider how people often respond to the question: "So, what do you do?" (In fact, the question is often framed liminally: "What are you doing these days?") The answer typically begins: "Well, currently I'm....." Currently. As in, I'm doing this for now but I don't plan on doing it forever.

The impact, states Frost, is that "no one belongs anywhere because everyone can belong anywhere." We've lost a deeper sense of belonging. For a great movie that illustrates this metaphor really well, watch "Up in the air" with George Clooney.

3) Tourism - The third characteristic Frost pointed to is that of tourism. Many people live their lives as tourists. For tourists, it's all about them. It's about their experience. It's about geting the photo - and then moving on. Like the airport lounge, it's a temporary and surface experience, but it's about the experience - the thrill - and then moving on to the next one. Tourists don't settle in for the long haul. Many mission trips fall closer to tourist experiences than anything else. We don't live the life of the natives, whether we're on mission in Downeast Maine or a Central American country. We're just passing through. More importantly, many people find themselves living as a tourist in their own homes.

4) Screen addiction - The fourth characteristic Frost lifted up was our addiction to screens: television, tablets and smart phones. Screen addiction is when you can't read a book for more than 15 minutes without picking up your screen and checking in. Screen addication is when you can't pay attention to someone speaking from the front of the room without flipping up the laptop, firing up the phone. This isn't to demonize screens. They are a tool. I am writing this post on a screen. However, there are times to put them away.

I was recently in a meeting of about 40 people. A few folks were taking turns sharing information that small groups has come up. Each person spoke no more than 7 - 10 minutes. Because this topic is at the front of my mind, I watched the room. It only took a few minutes. People grabbing phones, laptops, tablets and they wern't taking notes. I checked. They were checking email, Facebook, web browsing - you name it. I'll confess. I was tempted. Even through I'm hypersenstive to this at the moment, my hand went into my pocket and pulled out my phone right in the middle of one of the presentations. I had to call to my higher power to resist! Screen addiciton means we aren't present to the other. We're not present to ourselves for any length of time. Maybe you've seen the spoof ad of a mother who gets a new gadget that shuts down all TV/wifi in the home at dinner time so she can get her family to be present to each other at the dinner table. It's probably not far off from reality in more than a few homes.

These ideas are really challenging me to think deeply about my own life, and my life as a follower of Jesus. A couple of these characteristics describe aspects of my life. The solution? To live the opposite. To live incarnationally. To live in my neighborhood - to know my neighbors and let them know me. To settle in. Be present. Keep the phone/tablet/screen in its place and use appropriately. I'm wrestling with what some of that means for me in my current setting - my ministry - my rhythm of life. I invite you to do the same and look forward to conversation.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Is church turnaround possible?

This is a question I am often asked as I work with churches looking to, well, turn things around. And somewhere in the conversation, someone, sometimes me, sometimes someone else, will say, "For God, all things are possible." This Bible verse is quoted so often it almost feels cliche. And yet, cliches are cliches because there is often truth embedded within it. And the truth is this:

"For God, all things are possible."

Today I visited a church that is experiencing turn around and it is without question a work of God. They are not done. They have not "arrived" - but they are experiencing new life, growth and a life in the Spirit. Let me tell you a bit about them.

Two years ago, things were bleak. Worship attendance had dropped in half from only a few years before. The worship experience was lifeless. The music was technically good (they had and have great musicians) but there was little life and no sense of the Spirit. They were in deep trouble financially, burning through endowed funds that would run out quickly unless something changed. Ministries were in decline. A preschool owned and operated by the church was $17,000 in debt and had only 8 children in the program. No young people had been confirmed in years. The congregation was aging and no new families were coming - or if they were, they weren't staying. I think you're probably beginning to get the picture. Many of the signs Thom Rainer highlights in his book "Autopsy of a Deceased Church" were present. Unless something significant happened - anything short of a miracle - we would soon be doing an autopsy on this congregation.

I worshiped at that congregation today. The pews weren't full (it is a quite large sanctuary after all) but there were at least three times as many people present. There was a full choir. There were two sacred dance groups, adult and youth. There was both an organist and a band. There were LOTS of new faces. The preschool? Now debt free and there are 19 children attending! Recent confirmands were singing in the praise band. There was life! There is life! There are new partnerships with other churches and other agencies in the city and beyond. The church is multicultural both in attendance and leadership.

Here's the thing - the music wasn't great. It was pretty good, but technically, not great. There were mistakes - a few flubs even. But it didn't matter. The singing? It wasn't great. It was pretty good, but I've heard better. But it didn't matter. It didn't matter because every moment of worship was filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The music was played with joy in the Spirit. The songs were sung, by both choir and worshipers, with joy in the Spirit. Prayer was offered with joy in the Spirit. No deadly announcements. No deadly joys and concerns. Oh, joys were celebrated. Concerns were raised. They were offered in a deep, meaningful prayer, praising Jesus and crying out to God, by a lay person who was plugged into the community of faith and knew what was going on already and spoke to God with that knowledge.

What happened? Many things.

One thing was that they took a hard look at themselves. They engaged in an intentional process* where they took stock of who they were and where they were spiritually and emotionally. They analyzed the processes, or lack thereof, of hospitality, leadership development, and discipleship. They took stock of where they were in their faith practices, their devotion to the spiritual disciplines, the practice of generosity, and commitment to an outward focus. They analyzed the community around them, through demographic analysis and community leader interviews. After all of that, they asked the question: do we want to live or die?

They decided to live. Based on what they'd learned about themselves and their community, a strategic change in pastoral leadership was made. They were told that the new pastor wasn't going to hold their hand. Pastoral leadership as they knew it was over. There was a new commitment to an outward focused life. The pastor's priority was primarily to those not already part of the congregation.

Here's another example in how the congregation itself changed it's posture. As indicated above, the preschool was struggling. They decided that the preschool was an important part of who they are and they were going to invite families to enroll their children even if the family couldn't afford it. The vision of the preschool is to provide an environment in which children can develop both intellectually and spiritually and the church was committed to making that available. They believed this was part of God's call on the church. Soon, new children signed up. As word got out that they were providing spots, even if the family couldn't afford it, new partners came alongside, partners with money, partners willing to provide scholarships. As enrollment grew, other families signed their children up, some of these with the means to pay. And as mentioned above, today the school is financially strong.

In worship, they made a new commitment to celebrate God. They renewed their commitment to deep,
meaningful prayer. Small groups began to meet to explore what it means to experience a life in God. They began to experiment with new forms of worship. They renewed their commitment to service of the other, and not just service, but building relationships with those they served. A new group called "Mind, Body and Spirit" formed, providing space and support for people struggling with issues related to mind, body and spirit. The rhythm of the group includes a commitment to sharing how worship is part of a healthy and whole life.

It took time. But in the last year, nearly 20 new people have made commitments of faith. Young families are worshiping together. The worship is experience is diverse in language, in style, in format and in music. The congregation has begun to reflect the nature and make up of the community around it. And the community is noticing!

They are not done, but they are well on their way. And it has been a movement of God - a renewed commitment to live lives worthy of the calling of God, a renewed commitment to serve the community around the congregation and build relationship with the people who live in the neighborhood. They decide to live, and that even if they didn't make it, to live in a way that would bring life to others. Yes, turnaround is possible. "For God, all things are possible!"

*For more information about the assessment process this church used, give me a shout.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Much of my ministry today involves working with churches and church leaders who are struggling to help their church stay vibrant. Some are struggling just to keep the lights on. This situation is not unique to my denomination nor to the my part of the world. Many churches in the U.S. are facing the same challenges.

Thom Rainer has published a great little book, based on research of many churches over the course of his ministry, called "Autopsy of a Deceased Church + 12 Way to Keep Yours Alive." It is not
necessarily filled with new information, but it is an excellent summary of the factors that often lead to a church closing its doors for good, and the truth of how long the process toward that eventual end often is. The benefit of this book is that it could be a great conversation starter for church leaders as they review the 10 factors that Rainer highlights as leading to eventual death.

The book ends with good news - not easy news - but good news. There is hope. God of the resurrection can do all things through people willing to keep focused on the things of God. Much depends on the leadership of the congregation and its willingness to live sacrificially, toward each other and toward the communities in which they are located. If you are a leader in a local congregation, your leadership will be blessed by exploring the issues raised in this little book.