Tuesday, September 29, 2015

And a 1...and a 2...

Fifteen years ago I was a few weeks into my student teaching experience in Charles City, Iowa.  I spent my mornings directing high school vocal music and the afternoons in an elementary school general music classroom.  I went into that experience fairly certain that music would never be my primary vocation.  I had a sense that congregational youth ministry or seminary would be my next stop.  Music education (specifically choral conducting) was, at that time, the back up plan.

Though my primary vocational identity for the past 14+ has been in youth ministry, I've continue to make music part of my life.  I occasionally worked as a vocal music substitute at a local high school.  I played guitar for children's ministry events.  I led a "praise band" for a few years.  There's always music being played or sung in our home.  But I haven't really done the thing I was trained to do in college -- be a choir director.

That's going to change tomorrow.  One of my duties at my new church is to direct the choir.  Thinking about choir rehearsal makes me feel like I'm 21 years old again, getting ready to embark on another day of student teaching.  Excitement.  Terror.  Curiosity.  Humility.  Back in college, I'd squelch these feelings with frozen pizza, cheap beer, and Super Mario World with my roommate.  Tonight, I'll settle for West Wing reruns on the couch with my dog.

It's a bizzare thing to be in front of a group of musicians...a strange mix of intimacy, vulnerability, and passion.  And it's a profound honor.  Which is something I hope I never cease to recognize.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Potty-Mouthed Pastors

Paul Hill blogged about his recent experience at the Christianity21 conference.  It's a good post.  Go check it out... I'll be here when you get back.

As you can tell, Paul was taken aback by the pervasive use of profanity from many of the speakers.  He wonders if his negative reaction to the use of the F-word means he's becoming The Church Lady.*

At EC21 the speakers intentionally and frequently used [the f-bomb], commented on using it, and nearly celebrated using it.  I don't see how this communicates relevancy so much as it is pandering to the audience.  

It's hard for me to separate when someone is using salty language for emphasis and when they're just showing off.  I certainly am no stranger to profanity, and I'm not personally offended when someone f-bombs...but, I'll admit to being annoyed at times.  It's as if some of these folks are saying, "Look at me...I said a naughty word!"

Then again, I'm probably not the intended audience for the speakers at events like Christianity21.  (White, middle class, suburban, midwestern, life-long Lutheran, pastor's kid, etc.)  I really love what Emergence Christianity has done to draw the church out of it's fuddy-duddyness.  Furthermore, most of the emerging leaders are doing the kind of ministry I don't have the courage to event attempt.  If cursing and tattoos and piercings are part of the Relevance Package for these ministers, who am I to say they should stop?

Jake and I wrestled with the topic of profanity when assembling Cancer & Theology.  Several of the authors used words that would make my grandmother blush.  For a variety of reasons we kept their original language in the book.  We did this recognizing there are some people who will miss out on an excellent message because the writers employed a handful of curse words.

When it comes to the use of curse words, it's probably a living-in-the-tension situation, which, I'll admit, feels like a cop-out.  For me, it's about knowing your audience (whether it's a large assembly or a small group) and understanding when an f-bomb will convey passion and emphasis...and when it will distract and offend.

What do you think?  Is it okay for a pastor or church leader to use a "bad word" when writing or speaking in public?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cancer & Theology


Of all the words in the English language, I can think of none more offensive, violent, or profane than this word.


I don't know a single person who hasn't been touched by cancer in some way.  A family member.  A close friend.  A co-worker.  A classmate.  A parishioner.  Everyone knows someone (probably many someones) who has encountered cancer.

Two and a half years ago, a young mother in my congregation was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.  The diagnosis came with a near certain death sentence.  Chemotherapy and radiation followed a rather invasive surgery to remove part of the tumor.  As she was in the process of making a miraculous recovery, my good friend Jake was diagnosed with lymphoma.  It was in the midst of his treatment (and eventual recovery) that he reached out to a handful of Christian scholars, pastors, and leaders.  His request was simple—write essays which help people think theologically about illness and death.

There is great wisdom and candor found in each of these sixteen essays, several of which originally appeared on Jake's blog.  Last week the essays were gathered into an e-book called Cancer & Theology which is now available for purchase on Amazon.com.  A paperback version will be ready on February 1.  A portion of all proceeds will support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

These essays have helped me wrestle with how I understand God's activity in the midst my friends' journeys with cancer.  If you have been touched by cancer, I believe Cancer & Theology will speak to you as well.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Young Leaders

I'm spending the weekend at an ELCA youth leadership retreat.  Teenagers from across the country have gathered around three questions:

  1. How am I experiencing or seeing God's presence?
  2. What is God calling me to?
  3. How will I respond?
The group was visited this evening by Bishop Brian Maas of the Nebraska Synod.  He spoke about innovative leadership and invited the young people to wrestle with another question: "what does leadership look like in the church?"  He referenced Everett Rogers' technology adoption lifecycle and Geoffrey Moore's adaptation, which produced this chart:

Bishop Maas made a strong case for why church leaders aren't called to be innovators or even early adopters, rather leaders are called into the chasm.  He certainly piqued my interest in the topic.  One of the questions I will continue to wrestle with is who are these leaders?  Are they pastors?  Lay staff?  Volunteers?  Church councils?  Consultants?  Elders?  Youth?  Furthermore, do our congregations want pastors who will bridge the gap between the 15% and the 85%?  

Patrick Scriven, blogging for the Pacific Northwest Methodist Conference, doesn't think the church needs more innovative pastors.  I'm curious to know what you think.  

In the meantime, I'm excited to have the rest of the weekend to keep learning from the young people at this leadership retreat.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Counting the Costs

A group of college students came over to my house for dinner on Sunday night.  This was one of the last church events for students who are soon heading off to institutions of higher learning.  For many of these young people, the decision to attend college is a foregone conclusion...merely the obvious next step in their journey toward becoming productive members of society.  Most of them will receive financial support for their education, but almost all of them will graduate with much larger debt than their parents.  

It's no secret that the cost of education is more expensive for this generation than for previous generations.  We know that the rate of inflation is much more gradual than the rate of increases for colleges.  For example, the minimum wage in 1983 was $3.35/hour and the average college tuition was just under $1,800.  Today, the minimum wage is $7.25 and the average cost for tuition is just over $12,000.

For a student to "work their way through college" in 1983, they would need to crank out about 530 hours flipping burgers or stocking shelves each year.  A 40 hour work week in the summer months would nearly cover the total cost of tuition without any need for scholarships, financial aid, work study, or parental assistance.  Students today face a different reality.  A young person needs to work 2,480 minimum wage hours to pay for tuition; 4.5 times as many hours as their counterparts in the early 1980's.  

This extends to the church world as well.  In order for someone to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that person needs to receive a Masters of Divinity through a seminary, which is typically a four-year process.  Yesterday, Bishop Michael Rinehart posted these numbers on the ELCA Facebook page:
Factoid: Full-time tuition for a masters degree student this academic year at Luther [Seminary] was $15,000. Single students pay nearly $32,870 annually when tuition, room, board, books, insurance and other educational expenses are added together. 69% of seminary graduates have educational loans, averaging over $42,279.

The minimum base salary for a pastor in the Southeastern Iowa Synod is $33,625 (each synod has a slightly different number)...and the average seminary graduate carries $42,279 in educational loans.  Something is out of balance in this scenario.

I wonder if this entire education/seminary/ordination system is reaching the breaking point, if for no other reason than the financial burden it places on its pastors.  If we (the church) don't feel the need to change things, how much greater does this disparity need to be until the whole thing implodes?   I see and hear a lot of hand-wringing among seminary faculty, synod staff, clergy, and lay leaders about the cost of ordination, but all of us are short on realistic solutions to this growing problem.

Maybe there's a koinonia reader out there who is inspired to offer their suggestions.  Feel free to weigh in on the comments section or through Facebook/Twitter, if you prefer.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Things I Love About My Church #2

I've been on the staff at Windsor Heights Lutheran Church for over nine years.  There's a lot of cool stuff about this church, and though I can't possibly share all that's great about WHLC, I'd like to blog about a few of my favorite things.  For example...

Helping Hands

It's a bizarre experience to arrive on the scene of a disaster.  All routines, patterns, and assumptions are discarded and replaced by a new reality.  Anyone who has watched helplessly as a house burns to the ground or as a building is demolished by high winds knows how this feels.

I had a similar circumstance, though on a smaller scale, this past Saturday when I walked into the lower level at church.  "Is that water in the hallway?" my daughter asked.  It was indeed.  A lot of water.  Several thousand gallons of water had poured out of a broken water line on the third story and was spreading throughout the church.  All three levels experienced water damage, including carpeting, ceiling tiles, and walls.  Affected rooms included the narthex, fellowship hall, classrooms, and Sanctuary.  It was a mess.

After turning off the water, I made a few phone calls to the pastor and property committee members.  Mitigation professionals came to remove the water and discard soiled carpet...but there was still a lot of work that needed to be done in order to "prepare the way" for Palm Sunday.  Items needed to be sorted and either disposed of or moved to a dry location.  Equipment and furniture had to be relocated.  Temporary flooring needed to be put in place.

A few more phone calls yielded additional people.  Kiersten (age 5) said it best, when she told her older brother, "We need to go help.  If our house had flooded our church friends would be here to help us!"

People of all ages worked throughout the afternoon and late into the night and made it possible for worship to happen the following day.  It was a day that was both heartbreaking and redeeming.  As people responded with patience and generosity throughout the weekend, I was reminded of the myriad ways God's Spirit works through people to make the best of a bad situation.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


It's been a while since I've written anything in this space.  This happens frequently.  Here are the ten things that happen during a writing lapse:
  1. Clever thought enters brain
  2. Fingers begin typing
  3. Brain and fingers have disagreement
  4. #%$&*@!
  5. Writing resumes for 5 minutes
  6. Writing ceases
  7. Temper tantrum
  8. Blog post deleted
  9. Self-loathing
  10. Repeat #1-9
Maybe this time will be different...

* * *

We in the church like to talk about vocation - a word that comes from the Latin vocātiō which means "call" or "summons."  When discussing vocation Lutherans are fond of telling a story that goes something like this:

A shoe maker asked Martin Luther how to best serve God.  Luther asked him "What is your work now?"  The man replied "I am a shoemaker."  Luther told him "Make a good shoe and sell it at a fair price."  

It's a lovely story which conveys the notion that people serve the Lord when they use their God-given gifts in ways that are good and honest.  In this way, vocation is the pairing of a person's abilities and interests with the needs of the community.  

A similar sentiment was expressed (sarcastically and with a few naughty words) in The Onion last week:
...you need to find the one interest or activity that truly fulfills you in ways nothing else can. Then, really immerse yourself in it for a few fleeting moments after an exhausting 10-hour day at a desk job and an excruciating 65-minute commute home. During nights when all you really want to do is lie down and shut your eyes for a few precious hours before you have to drag yourself out of bed for work the next morning, or on weekends when your friends want to hang out and you’re dying to just lie on your couch and watch TV because you’re too fatigued to even think straight—these are the times when you need to do what you enjoy most in life.

Vocātiō seems like a simple concept - serve God by doing what you love.  Yet all around I feel the anguish of people who find this to be unattainable.  There's the teenager who feels compelled to get good grades so he can go to a good college so he can get a job that pays well enough for him to service the six-figure college debt he will rack up.  There's the college student who changed her major because there wasn't enough job security in what she was passionate about.  And there's the young GenXer who can neither imagine working for the same company another year (let alone 30) nor imagine taking the risk of changing careers.

Certainly there are many examples of people who have stepped out in faith to serve God and humankind through their vocation.  There are also people who haven't made a monumental change in their profession, but have modified the way they approach the work they are currently doing.  I wonder how the church - it's people and it's institutional structures - can better encourage God's people to see their work as prayer each day.

Have you witnessed people in your life who live out their vocation?  How might you serve God through your "ordinary" job?