“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” or Miss Frizzle as spiritual guide

MagicSchoolBus-620x323Recently, I was in a group of church leaders, Pastors and Elders, as we discussed how to make congregations more vital. Every time I am in this type of gathering, I am both saddened as well has filled with hope.

My sadness comes from the fact that so many of our bothers and sisters in Christ are struggling to continue their congregational ministry. Churches throughout our denomination, as well as many others, have seen a decline in their daily participation. It can be hard to see a vital future when the news of the day is continually telling us that we are “dying.”

I believe that one of the greatest obstacles facing the Church is that it is so focused on the past. Even people who weren’t involved in the church in the past have a grand impression of the church’s past. Christian cultural dominance of the past has led to what is viewed as a high water mark of the church. We are bound to that past like a stone around our neck. It drags us down and under. This is what truly saddens me. Good, faithful, loving Christians, who see what they are doing as being lesser because it doesn’t look, like the past.

One thing that I have come to value about the coach approach to leadership and life is that while the past can be informative, we must focus on future reality. We all remember when Churchill used the phrase, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It is true; we need to learn both the positives and negatives of the past. Congregationally the stories we carry forward tell us a lot about who we are. The problem is that we often allow those stories to determine who we will be. As people of an ancient sacred story, we value our past, without it we actually don’t have a common calling. Continue reading

Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s Ashes (Originally Posted 2-2013)

Today, I wanted to repost this article on Ash Wednesday from 2013.  Join us tonight for our supper and service at 6:30 PM

   Ash-Wednesday-for-web-2014 I don’t know if many know that I am a cradle Presbyterian. That means I was born a Presbyterian and for the most part have always worshiped as a Presbyterian. Beyond that I was raised in a Presbyterian Church that was influenced by a Dutch Reformed mindset. As such we were less than liturgical. The only liturgical traditions I remember were Maundy Thursday and Advent. I don’t recall growing up with any traditions around Ash Wednesday and Lent in general. That’s not to say they weren’t present, I just don’t recall them being very important in the life of the congregation.
     Continue reading

Three Things I Learned During The Blizzard of 2016

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This past week we had a historic storm that blanked the Washington Metro area with deep snow, which crippled our area. Here are three things I learned during this storm:

 

  1. You eat an elephant one bite at a time– During this storm I was fortunate to have the use of a snow blower to clear the snow. While that may sound like a great thing it didn’t make the work easy. It is tempting to wait for the storm to end and then tackle the clearing. Resisting that temptation I can testify that it was so much easier to venture out in the storm for a short time to clear smaller accumulation. This of course doesn’t just apply to snow. Often we find ourselves in a place where the job seems too big. Even in the storms of life if we take it on in small ways we can make progress.
  1. People are not accustomed to accepting help– After I cleared my own drive and walk I ventured out to help many of my neighbors. I don’t say this to make myself sound like a nice guy. Rather, I was struck by the fact that most folks looked at my act of neighborly kindness with an economic understanding. That understanding was expressed by some offering me cash.  The more interesting part was how folks felt like they owed me something. I wasn’t going to do this work to gain an IOU. Even the “Pay it forward” understanding stands in the way of accepting a gift graciously. Apply this to the message of the Gospel. Thankfulness is our best response.
  1. There is noting like a common challenge to unite people- I am blessed to live in a neighborhood that has a fairly strong sense of community. Even with that underlying ethos I was impressed by how many people were working to help each other. It was also refreshing to see folks out in the streets talking. Many folks may not have spoken in a long while. Yet here in the aftermath of a storm community was being embodied.

Church Assessment Tool and Visioning Update

In October of 2015 our congregation participated in the Church Assessment Tool (CAT) survey.  We had 88 percent of our worship attendance complete the tool.  This is a strong response and has provided us with a valuable and accurate snapshot of our congregation.  On behalf of the Session I would like to thank each of you who took the time to complete the CAT online or via paper copy.

In November the leadership of our congregation made up of the Session and Diaconate met with two “Interpreters” from the presbytery who were trained to help congregations understand the information gathered by the CAT.  This was a great time of confirmation, discovery and challenge.  Following the interpretation the leadership group was asked to spend some time considering the information.

Due to the Advent and Christmas seasons we were forced to put off our first follow up meeting until January 6.  This meeting was intended to provide those who were unable to attend the interpretation with a “mini-interpretation” and to give everyone else an opportunity to once again familiarize themselves with the results.   I’m proud to report that all but one Deacon currently serving was present at this meeting. Over the course of two hours we immersed ourselves in the CAT and had some discussion about the results.  The CAT provides a great wealth of information and the first step for our congregation is to determine what the most important items are.

At the conclusion of the Leadership meeting each person was left with the challenge of personally reviewing the information and identifying what they believe are critical insights.  At our Session and Diaconate meetings next week, we will discuss the places that we believe we need to pay close attention to.  To that end I would also like to invite everyone from the congregation to help the leadership in the process of interpretation.  What is it that you the congregation would like to learn from the CAT?

Our next phase in the CAT process is helping the congregation understand what has been learned from the assessment.  As promised we are continuing to ensure our visioning and goal setting process as a priority.  The leadership of Christ Presbyterian Church is committed to making sure that this doesn’t become just another exercise we complete and put on a shelf.  Please continue to pray for the Spirits leading in our congregation as we look towards the vital future we know God has planned for Christ Presbyterian Church.

Beyond Resolutions… Set SMART Goals

This is a cross posted article with www.geoffmcleancoaching.com. 

Many of us make New Year’s resolutions. It seems right to think of a new year as a new opportunity to make oneself better. “A new year, A new you,” is one of those catchy ways to sum up our newfound hope that comes with a fresh calendar year.

Even still, most of us also make those resolutions with little to no expectation that we will achieve them. It is easy to throw out standard resolutions that make us feel like we have turned over a new leaf. Herein lies the problem; making generic “commitments” to change are not very helpful.

This is a great place for us to apply the SMART goal setting. You may employ this practice in your work life. Many corporate organizations use the SMART model throughout their planning. SMART is an acronym that highlights what a goal should be all about.

smart goal setting conceptS- Specific: Goals should state exactly what you want to accomplish. Use the old who, what, when, where, and why questions to help whittle down a grand idea into a more precise goal.

M- Measurable: It is critical to decide how you will determine success. What will you use to gauge your movement towards achieving your goal?

A- Attainable: Goals should challenge you to move beyond your current state but not be so out of reach that you set yourself up for failure. Be willing to push yourself, but also be realistic.

R- Relevant: Check to make sure that the goal you are setting is in line with your “big picture.” It is easy to set up competing goals that inevitably mean that neither goal is achieved. Does this new goal fit into your overall objectives?

T- Time Bound: Setting a schedule for your goals helps you to move forward. An open-ended time limit allows you to push it back for an indeterminate amount of time. Finite time limits encourage action. It is also good to set waypoints along the way to see how much daily, monthly or quarterly progress is being made.

It is not enough to just say you are going to do something. The adage, “Failing to plan is planning to fail” is attributed to Ben Franklin. We often think that setting a goal is planning. An end point (goal) is not a plan it is a dream. To achieve dreams it is critical that we set ourselves up with SMART goals that encourage us to actually accomplish what we are dreaming about. I know that dream is a big word. After all we don’t necessarily think that higher sales numbers or a little less weight as a dream. Yet, without an actionable plan that is all our goals will be, far off dreams.

As a coach it is my role to encourage and help coachees take their dreams and begin a process of formulating SMART goals to achieve them. Do you feel like you have a bold vision for what could be, but don’t know how to get there? A coach is a valuable resource to help you sort through all of the competing claims on your time and energy and to help set a plan to achieve the dreams you have for your life.

If you want a partner in your SMART goal setting and are looking for a coach, please contact me at www.geoffmcleancoaching.com.  A new year, a new you can be more than just a trite phrase. It can be your future.

Advent 2- Peace on Earth

The rattling of sabers is loud.  The fear and danger are real.  The warring madness of God’s creation is palpable.  While in the sanctuary, God’s people are lighting candles and speaking bold words about the promised peace that comes in Christ.
 
Are the words of our worship simple and empty platitudes or do they have deep meaning and power in our lives?  Sadly, I believe that the former is too often the truth.  Like saying God has a plan to someone who has just lost a child, peace talk in the midst of war or threat of war seem like hollow words.
 
In recent years I have had Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” ringing in my ear long past the Christmas Season.  His words from 1863 have been used as lyrics to the song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  In particular the struggle between the bells that ring “Peace on earth, Good will to men” while “hate is real and mock the song.”  I, like Longfellow, find my “head bowed in despair.”  Even as my faith points me to the hope of peace on earth I can’t help but to be struck by the sorrow and pain that surrounds us. 
 
Longfellow wrote this poem following the death of his wife and his own severe wounding in a fire.  Along with these tragedies his son was also severely wounded during a Civil War battle.  These personal struggles led Longfellow to have a deep crisis of faith wondering if God was even present in this calamitous world.
 
Rather than writing a poem that professes the death of faith, he writes a modern psalm of hope in the promise of God.  The hope of the Gospel is that despite the overwhelming darkness of the world around us, the light of Christ shines through. I wonder how it is that Longfellow was able to find this hope even in his dire situation.
 
In the end it is the fact that in despair, in times of war, hatred and even when it seems that God is dead, the bells of Christmas ring.  For our age this is still the timeless truth.  Today, most churches don’t have physical bells in a tower and even if they do they are kept silent.  In our day the bells that ring are the lives we live.  We are the bright sounding bells in a world of despair.  That is what it means to be the body of Christ. (Sorry about the metaphor shift) To live the Christian faith in times of terror and fear means that we not only have to personally find the strength of our trust in the Prince of Peace, we also need to allow that strength to resound from our lives. 
 
“Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep (Peace on Earth, peace on Earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men”
 
I pray that in your life you might find the sounds of the bells of peace are louder than the sabers that rattle. 

ADVENT 1 – HOPE

20151201_115627-1Every year as Advent begins, I feel like I must come up with a compelling reason to encourage those around me to become part of the Advent disciplines. For over sixteen year’s I have written newsletter articles, blog post and sermons advocating for a deeper connection to the religious reality of the season. I suppose that for some, these encouragements may have had an effect. I have a suspicion that for most of us the external pressures put upon us trump any well-intended messages.

I have to admit that this is at times a bit frustrating. As the world spins up the commercial Christmas machine I feel like I need to be an advocate for the true message of the birth of the Messiah. Yet, I know that my words are like a grain of sand on a barren desert of Christmas sales and parties.

Yeah Lord ADVENTEach year, along with Barbara Stefan our Music Director, we make a conscious effort to put our own well being at risk by keeping Christmas Carols out of Advent. Yes, there are people who think that Pastors and Music Directors who don’t let Carols be sung before Christmas should be fired. I have been asked, “why don’t you just make folks happy and sing carols before Christmas.” Trust me, it would be easier, but not very helpful. If we simply jump into Christmas how do we connect to the expectation that all creation should have? How do we prepare the way of the Lord if we move directly to the Manger?

For some this is just a theological chess match. I would contend that it isn’t a game. How we worship guides how we live. In a world that is filled with a distorted view of Christmas and overwhelming despair, the themes of Advent are critical for our spiritual health. Finding meaning in the hope, peace, joy and love of God is critical for our very soul. When we purposefully slow down and resist the negative and consumer messages, we reset our spiritual mindset.

This week we are immersed in the Hope of Advent. Recent experiences and events in the world certainly have made highlighting Hope apropos. We are constantly in a state of needing to revive our hope. Current political discourse, terrorist activity, racial division and scores of other issues have undermined our hope. Part of this is due to the fact that we have sought to find our hope in the wrong places. Much of today’s news shows us clearly that our systems and structures have failed to provide what they often promise. Safety, security, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are continually being challenged. This is due to the fact that we have placed our hope in broken human beings and social order. The hope we find knocking at the door during Advent is from an eternal source.

During worship this week I tired to highlight with the children, the fact that our hope in Christ comes from the fact that we have seen the promises of God continually kept. We hope in Christ because throughout time when God has made promises to the people, God has come through on them. It is incumbent upon us to take this time of Advent to reconnect our trust in the “hesed” or steadfast love of God. This is the foundation of our hope. Even when the world and its promises fail, God’s hesed is everlasting. The prophet Isaiah speaks boldly about the reality of the hope we can have in God’s love and promise when he proclaims:

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

  • How does the Advent season prepare you for embracing the Messiah?
  • Where do you find your hope?
  • How do you experience the “hesed” or steadfast love of God in your life?

First Fruits Stewardship- Guest Blogger- Sue Ferguson

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Today I have asked Sue Ferguson to be my guest blogger.  This past Sunday during worship she shared the story of Christ Presbyterian’s First Fruits stewardship with regards to our mission work in Guatemala. I hope that our congregations faith in God’s provisions might inspire you to take your first or further steps towards a First Fruits Stewardship practice.  

 

Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the first fruits of all your crops;  then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.  (Proverbs 3)

  During this time in the life of our congregation, when we reflect on our blessings and think about how we might, as our focus verse indicates, “honor the Lord with your wealth”, it might be useful to provide an example of what this verse looks like in action.   We are not often blessed to see such immediate and fulfilling results from our giving, but we have a story of our own of how God took what we gave and multiplied it beyond our greatest expectations.  

While in Guatemala this summer, the mission team received a certificate of appreciation. It was not appreciation for labor or time.  It was for the finances CPC has provided, as a congregation, to help build the four school rooms that are now in full use and serving the community in ways never imagined.  Over the course of two years, pledge dollars have provided $10,000 in funding.  In addition, motivated by the generosity of the congregation, each year the mission team set goals to match or exceed the funds provided from the pledges, through personal fund raising, family, friends and additional support from the CPC community.  We accomplished this to the total of over $25,000 raised toward the building of the school. 

It was the direct pledged-giving that helped make that happen.  This congregation used its first fruits – you pledged, and session approved without knowing what might result, to devote a significant portion of church resources toward the effort in Guatemala.  And now, we are seeing first hand how the barns are filled and the vats overflowing.  The best part of this story is it is still being written.  As a result of pledge dollars, a village was empowered to seek out other ways to get funding.  As a result of having experienced the generosity of strangers making their village a priority, giving first fruits, they dug even deeper into what they had.  The example of generosity has yielded fruits well beyond the bricks and mortar. God worked to multiply the inspiration from that initial individual pledge of faith to bring transformation.

Our stewardship emphasis asks us to honor God with our first fruits.  As a church body, CPC did just that.  Members pledged with faith that the dollars would be used for God’s glory, even if the specific were not decided yet.  The session allocated mission funding based not on what we already knew, but on our call to honor God with our first fruits and a trust that He would provide.  As a result, there are four bustling classrooms in a village that is experiencing transformation.  And it all began with pledged dollars.

As we approach Commitment Sunday, think about how you can affirm your relationship with God by honoring Him with your first fruits. We have our very own example of how our barns will be filled and our vats overflowing when we making giving our best and FIRST a priority.  That does not mean it is easy, and in fact it might make you uncomfortable. If you have not pledged before, perhaps it is time to make that first step.  Regardless of the amount, it is a bold step in faith to make that commitment.  Be prayerful about your decision, even if you have been pledging for years. We need to approach our personal giving as our own church has – by devoting our first fruits for the hopes of what can be.  

You can never experience what could be, if you only give to maintain what already is.

Holy Cow! Congregation Assessment Tool

September 27th – October 18th

In the next few days you will receive a letter inviting you to participate in our mission/visioning and goal setting activities at Christ Presbyterian Church.  As I introduced a few weeks ago, the first step in this process is a “survey” of our whole congregation.  Rather than inviting an expert in to assess our congregation we are using the Congregational Assessment Tool (CAT) provided by Holy Cow consulting.  This tool allows you, our congregation, to be the expert on our life together. 
 
The CAT allows members and friends to provide a snapshot of our congregation.  From your answers given in the tool, a trained interpreter will help us highlight where our congregation has great strength and energy.  One of the things I like about the CAT and Holy Cow’s philosophy is that they are a “strengths-based model.”  Meaning that it helps us identify and build on our strengths as a means for spiritual and numerical growth.  Many other approaches to assessment are based on a failure focus. 
 
The CAT is also a “benchmarked” instrument designed to provide an in-depth look at the experiences, perceptions and aspirations of a church’s congregation.1  This means that we are not only given a view of our congregation but how we compare to churches like us.  After all, we aren’t the only one’s seeking to be the church to our community in a new a vital way. 
 
The CAT will help us:

  • Measure the level of satisfaction and energy in the church.

  • Identify the critical success factors for improving organizational climate.

  • Discover where members would like to go in the future.

  • Gauge readiness for change.

  • Uncover potential resources we may be missing.1

In the coming weeks, I will explore each of these areas to help everyone understand why this assessment is useful as we discern God’s will for us in the future.
 
Right now, I want to impress upon you how important it is that you participate in our assessment.  Christ Presbyterian Church is blessed with a great diversity and we need a wide representation of that diversity in our assessment.  We will be asking everyone who worships with us to complete the tool.  This includes those who are members and non-members.  Also, anyone who has worshiped, participated in a ministry or contributed financially over the past year are needed.  The deeper the pool, the wider our insights will be. 
 
Also, please insure that you have signed up for our weekly email with a working address. While we will have paper copies available we need to reserve that for folks who don’t have access to the web-based tool. 

 

1 Taken from Holy Cow’s website:  “https://holycowconsulting.com/cat/”

A Personal Reflection on the Struggle to Serve God and Country

bible-american-flag-cropped-shutterstock_182898479-400x4001Recent church and state struggles have caused me to reflect on a time in my life when I was forced to wrestle with the reality of faith and citizenship. News of a County Court Clerk, Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses based on her religious beliefs is the most recent case. I appreciate Ms. Davis’ commitment to her faith but believe that she either needs to step down from her post or face the reality of legal punishment. After all, she took an oath to apply the laws as they have been passed. She either needs to issue licenses, be charged with contempt of court or step down and become a political activist to change the laws. I don’t say this because of her beliefs on marriage, I say this based on what it means to be a Christian with convictions and also a person who has chosen to subject her own will to both Christ and U.S. law.

Let me share how I personally have struggled with this very hard dynamic of faith.

The year was 1995 and I had just entered seminary and was about to be commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy Reserves so I could begin my time as a Chaplain Candidate. It was an exciting time and I was seeing many of the goals I had set come to fruition. The very dawn of my call began at my brother Kris’ graduation from military police school after seeing an Army Chaplain at work. I saw an opportunity to serve God and country in a very needed and meaningful place. For many years leading up to my commission it had just been a natural idea. This was almost a “best of both worlds” opportunity.

Just before my commissioning I was forced to confront the fact that while this was an exciting opportunity it was one that shouldn’t entered into lightly. Someone asked me if I was ready to raise my right and swear to “support and defend the constitution of the United States of America.” It was a simple and easy answer, “of course.” Then this person asked, “what if doing so puts you at odds with your commitment to follow Christ?”

This question wasn’t a great epiphany, I knew that following Christ and being a citizen of the U.S. at times gets messy. Yet, the idea that I was going to raise my right hand and essentially say that I would perhaps have to put one over the other was a deeper reality. What does it mean to follow Christ and be a good citizen? Mark 12:17 is a passage that came to mind, ”And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The problem is that my allegiance is always first and foremost to God. My faith leads me to believe that all things in my life are from and belong to God.

I mulled this over and prayed for quite some time before the day of my commissioning. I had to struggle with the fact that if I was to indeed make an oath, which some Christians don’t even support, I needed to do so with a full understanding of the implications. What would I do if my call to be a Christian Pastor and a Navy Chaplain came to odds with each other? Was I able to keep Christ first and bear the consequences if an order I received was in consistent with my beliefs?

Ultimately, I did raise my right hand and swore to support and defend the constitution. I did so knowing that there could be a chance that one day I might be in a situation where I would have to choose between my allegiances.

I never “superseded” my commission to become a full Chaplain with the Navy. During my mandatory two year “Parish Call” I found a passion and calling to serve in the local congregation. Still this very real faith struggle has informed my ministry and preaching ever since. I must live my faith as one who is always ready to join the Apostle Paul, Dietrich Bonheoffer and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in prison for my beliefs. This isn’t just a struggle for those who are in government service. Everyone who holds religious beliefs find himself or herself in the same situation every day. If we are truly living out our faith we must be willing to make hard choices. Isn’t that what sets us apart from others.

It is easy in today’s social media world to make villains or heroes out of people plucked from obscurity. Some see Ms. Davis as religious nut case and bigot while others hail her as a modern day martyr. I don’t see her either way. I see her as one who is in the very struggle of the dual citizenship we all have as Christ Disciples. I can’t say I agree with they way she is carrying out this struggle but I hope others can learn from it.