Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Church Stewardship: Money and Time

Many of my pastor friends have been sharing ideas to talk about stewardship to congregations. Most feel it is a necessary evil because congregations have financial needs, but many are uncomfortable directly asking for money. Since there are always new members, education about where money is spent on ministries is an important topic. The Episcopal Church, for example, published 10 Common Mistakes in Fundraising for Congregations earlier this month. Many churches have commitment cards so members can pledge an amount for a general fund or a building project or a special ministry.

Talking of stewardship makes me think of some examples from my own experience. I remember my sister-in-law telling me of the day in her early teens when she realized that there was value in her church attendance, and that value needed to be funded. She came from a non-church, non-Christian, non-American background; but the community she found in her church was worth giving a weekly offering.

Growing up, I knew the widows in my rural church set aside their tithe the very first thing when they got their small Social Security checks. It would be in their purses inside the little giving envelopes, and they would let one of their children know that if they happened to die before Sunday, that envelope needed to make it to church.

I remember special days at my rural Baptist church when a banknote would be burned the Sunday after it had been paid off. It was the symbol of weeks and weeks of giving so that the work of the church could continue or be expanded.

So many stewardship sermons: all about money. Memorial gifts that bought new sound systems or pulpit furniture. Special denomination representatives that came to preach and tell of how a building fund was going to work and be good for our church.

It is expensive to maintain buildings. When a congregation falls below a certain threshold, it sometimes becomes imperative that everyone give. But not everyone will. Difficult decisions have to be made about budgets and staff and all the minutiae of ministry and materials and special events.

I think it is similar to running a business in many ways though churches usually leave room for faith to fit in somewhere. Yet how many pastors have business experience? Seminaries may need to offer courses in finances, but I've never heard of one doing so.

So stewardship has always been a talk about money. But one time in my life, I heard a different message. And it stuck.

When I was in my early teen years, I heard a pastor talk about time. Specifically, tithing time. Which seems quite impossible since an actual tithe of time would be over 2 hours a day--difficult to do unless you are in ministry as a vocation.

In the business world, there is a saying that time is money. Time given to a ministry, to volunteer with a church group, is valuable. It is often overlooked--especially by the articles written on stewardship and the sermons preached about pledges and by the governing councils in a church who see value only in how much someone gives (and therefore controls the church).

So in my mind, I'd like to see someone take up the issue of how time can be of value to the church. I'd like young struggling couples be able to see their volunteering in a church as a way to tithe. I'd like to see us realize that time is given by God just like we are told our money is given by God. (So those hours on Facebook should be scrutinized.)

Yes, money will help ministries to flourish. But I think the pledge cards need to include a section about volunteering. It is a matter of the congregation realizing that they are the hands of Jesus and not just the pocketbook.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Calypso's Island

Every night for the longest time I have read aloud to one or more of my sons. These days I read a chapter a night to my youngest, my nine year old. We have read the Chronicles of Narnia and all of Harry Potter aloud. We are currently on book four (The Battle of the Labyrinth) of the five book Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.

Tonight I read the chapter called, "I Take a Permanent Vacation." It is my favorite chapter of the entire series. In it, Percy Jackson, a half-blood (mother is human, father is Poseidon) has been blasted from the earth by Mt. Saint Helens and is marooned on Calypso's Island. Calypso helps him heal from his wounds and get his strength back. But Calypso's curse is that any mortal that comes to her island will always leave her, and she will always be heartbroken after falling in love with him.

So, yes, Percy does leave the island at the end of the chapter. Percy always helps his friends, and he has to get back to the ones that think him dead, so they can stop a Titan uprising. But as he sails away from the island, Percy realizes that it is the beginning of his what if? Percy could have stayed and been happy on the island. The life-threatening prophecy would have been about someone else. He would have fallen in love with Calypso, become immortal, had no worries or cares in the world.

My nine year old doesn't understand the concept of a what if? decision. It is something that comes as you get older. That road less traveled that Robert Frost wrote about. The "Turn Left" episode of Doctor Who. Our lives are filled with small what ifs and occasionally we get a life-changing what if.  Those big ones can ruin us if we always look back and forget to move forward.

So the chapter really does make me sad. I remember the times in my life where things could have changed in a drastic way. And I let the bittersweet thoughts consume me sometimes. And I refuse to answer my nine year old because my what if decisions could have erased him from my life. Yet here I am. Sitting on the floor, with my son in my lap, reading a chapter he will have to grow to understand.

I will not dwell on the what ifs. I have the what is right in front of me.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Thoughts About Mother's Day

I do not like being in church on Mother's Day. Thankfully, I'm taking a break from church right now, so I don't have to face it this year. I think there is a lot to unpack with my dislike of Mother's Day. Maybe it should be some other place that in this blog, but I need to get some things out.

My first recollections of Mother's Day as celebrated by a church was in my own country church of my childhood. There would be special recognition of the youngest mother, the oldest mother, and the mother with the most children (presumably living). We would wear red roses for mothers still alive and white roses for mothers who had died. Today, most churches have stopped doing this. There is a lot of hurt that comes with such recognition. Too many women are infertile, have had miscarriages, have had children die, or even haven't wanted to bear children. These people find Mother's Day to be a painful day to be in church. Recognizing all women in the church is one way some congregations deal with Mother's Day, but that skirts around the problem that some women still find the day completely difficult.

I never had a problem with the recognizing of mothers when I was growing up. But since then, I have known enough friends who hurt and intentionally avoid church because of the emphasis.

My other problem may sound more petty: I don't like going to church and having people tell me Happy Mother's Day. I have to bite my tongue and accept it, but these people aren't my children. I have the strange idea (I guess) that my children are the only ones who should tell me that. Mother's Day should be a family holiday, but it doesn't mean everyone gets to celebrate. It is personal. I love being able to send my mother a card and a gift and call her on Mother's Day; but here again, not everyone can say that.

Also, willy-nilly wishing of Happy Mother's Day to strangers is a complete assumption of whether or not they are mothers at all. Go to a restaurant tomorrow, oh middle-aged woman, and you may get the Mother's Day greeting--with the wisher never knowing if such a thing is true or if it will cause you pain.

In recent years, I have remained outside the sanctuary door so I wouldn't have to be recognized or hear a special Mother's Day song or tribute. I don't come to church for that. But I have noticed the women who were consistently absent over the years. I saw them, and I saw their pain. And every year, my dissatisfaction with the holiday has grown. I hate Mother's Day for the divisions it brings to women. I would be all in favor of getting rid of it if not for my boys' happiness at giving homemade cards or my loving thoughts at picking out cards and gifts for my own mother.

Theologically, I don't think Jesus would have celebrated Mother's Day. In Matthew 12: 46-50, we can see what emphasis Jesus placed on his family:

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Gosh! I really wish I knew what Mary said to that!

The truth of it is that when we follow Jesus, our earthly bonds of parent/child or brother/sister or even wife/husband are not as important as spiritual relationship with God. Granted in biblical times, families were often formed due to economic reasons rather than emotional ones. But in our materialistic world today, where every commercial for the last few weeks has been about buying mom jewelry, maybe a bit of Jesus's words can still apply. 

Some part of me realizes that the celebration of motherhood is a patriarchal ceremony. First Timothy 2:15 says the woman will be saved through childbearing--which is part of that whole women being submissive passage complementarians so love to quote. Give mothers a day of celebration, but heaven forbid one of them wants to get up and preach. Tell them all about the Proverbs 31 woman, but don't let her know that this woman worked outside the home. Don't let the women think they can remain childless by choice. Motherhood is the highest ideal, so the patriarchy says. 

I'm such a theology nerd. I've clearly overthought Mother's Day for many years. Yet I think it is okay to do so. We need to ask us why we are celebrating. We don't need to blindly follow the crowd without thinking for ourselves.

So, while I'm not going to say Happy Mother's Day tomorrow to anyone but my own mother. I am thinking about friends: one who was infertile, but adopted a baby this year; one who didn't have a husband, and chose artificial insemination to become a mother anyway; one who never had children of her own, but is a step-mom to her husband's child; one who chose to remain childless by choice, but loves the children she teaches; one who had many miscarriages before having a rainbow baby; one who shares the day with her spouse, as two mothers to a child they both love; one who longs for children, but won't have them without having a husband first; one who has her two lovely children and spends her life making a home for them; one whose children won't talk to her because of estrangement; one who is facing the day with the fresh memory of her husband's passing as she tries to make life normal again for her boys; one who wants to have children, but cannot for medical reasons; the one that has buried her child; the one who just misses her own mama--I hold all these people in my heart. 

In this world, there is grief and happiness sometimes at the same time. Mother's Day is a day when that is particularly true. Let us be intentional with our words. Let us be thoughtful in our actions. Let us be kind to one another. Amen.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

We Do Not Say Lappidoth's Wife

Over on, a new article went up today by Raleigh pastor J.D. Greear. It is called, "The Church Needs More Deborahs." And it is a great title. Unfortunately, the article starts strong but completely derails by the end. Greear seems to want to give women the chance to be the ministry leaders that God calls them to be, but he also wants them to stay in "God's order." God's order is the code-word/catch-phrase for complementarianism--a long word not too many people outside of evangelicalism will care about (or for). It means that there is a hierarchy to follow in a household. And it is best shown by this illustration you may have seen before:

In the picture, you have Christ as head of the husband, husband as head of wife, and wife as head over children (some put the children as head of the pets--whatever). The notion of headship goes back to passages like Ephesians 5, and they tend to "keep women in their places" in a great number of evangelical churches, baptist seminaries, etc.

In his article, Greear was so close to true revelation. I hope he keeps praying that the Holy Spirit will show him a better way of allowing women to lead--under God's authority alone. Here is a better graphic for what that looks like:

Anyway, back to the article.

Deborah was an Old Testament prophet whose story is found in Judges chapter 4 & 5. Deborah was called by God to lead the Israelites to victory over Sisera, the Canaanite commander who had oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. But there is one gem of a half-sentence in the article's conclusion: "[Deborah] is still identified by her husband...". That makes me laugh. I'm sure you immediately remembered Deborah's husband's name, right? We don't remember his name. It is mentioned in passing, but that's it. His name was Lappidoth. I had to look it up.

A long time ago on a Wednesday in mid-June (June 14, 2000), the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a statement that said that the role of pastor in a church was reserved for a man. I grew up Southern Baptist. I was also in divinity school, and I had also been called by God to preach. So on June 18, 2000, I joined a church that was aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship--a group that had broken away from the Southern Baptists over the women in ministry issue. I had been attending that church, First Baptist Church of Forest City, NC since my husband Phillip and I had married 3 1/2 years earlier.

And I was known as Phillip's wife.

By the time I finished divinity school, Phillip was known as Amy's husband. And here's how that happened....

I had to complete a year of internship in a local church to complete my degree. So I presented myself to the leaders of First Baptist, and they found me a place. I taught children, helped with the youth, went on retreats, attended meetings, led worship, served communion, and yes, preached. That church recognized my call was from God. They didn't need to identify me by my husband at the end of the year as they licensed me to preach and affirmed my call.

No one remembers Deborah's husband's name. Her authority didn't come from her husband--it came directly from God. As women called by God, that is also where our authority comes from. The Church does need more Deborahs--women called by God and God alone. Only then will the true Gospel be realized and restoration can occur.

We do not say Lappidoth's wife. We say Deborah's husband.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bring Your Best to God

My previous post went up today, but now I am going to expand on it a bit more. This is due to the fact that I am a bit angry at the sub-par sermon experience I had this morning. In a way that is deeply personal to me, let me tell you why it matters for preachers to preach good sermons.

In my experience as an evangelical, Protestant Christian, I have seen churches readily affirm young men in their congregation who announce they feel called to ministry. They say, "Sure. Come on. We will let you preach next Sunday. Maybe we will ordain you next month." It does not matter that the young man hasn't even been to bible school at all. Instead they enter a role like pastor with ease.

Consider those of us with two X chromosomes. The scenario above never happens. If a young woman from the same congregation announced a call, she may be ignored, rebuked, reprimanded--certainly not encouraged--by her evangelical, Protestant church. She will have passages from 1 Timothy chapter 2 thrown at her. Who gives her the authority to speak? Why would God call a woman? We don't do it the way those liberal churches do it--because it's sin.

So, the young woman has to attend divinity school or seminary to get her master's degree. She may send out 100 resumes looking to obey God's call to preach. But all she gets is silence. Maybe she could work with the children instead? Her own church ignores her request to be ordained--and that church is supposed to be a bit more progressive and affirming of women's roles in ministry. Maybe her denomination won't ordain without a call. Maybe she can't be called by a church until she is ordained--"ordination required for this position"she reads in the job posting. Maybe she wants to preach in her own church and has to have another man twist the arm of the pastor to let her do so. Yet this woman knows how to craft a sermon and deliver it. It is something she keeps studying and working on as she smashes her fists against the stained glass ceiling. The fact that she is a woman holds her in an unordained status--frustrated yet still eager to follow God's call.

The man who is called doesn't even have to try that hard. Which makes him think that sub-par is enough. But like Cain bringing his sacrifice to God, you've got to bring your best or the offering is rejected.

My brothers in Christ who happen to also be preachers: you've got to bring your best. The women who are called, who could easily step into your place if you were out sick one Sunday, are prepared. Bring your A game. One day, this post will be obsolete--women will have their calls affirmed as quickly and easily as men's. But for now, you better be ready. You better work on your sermon and know your stuff. You need to read and study and pray and be ready to speak Truth.

Sermons are Important

A few weeks ago, a Gallup poll found that sermon content was what most appeals to churchgoers. It certainly does to me--especially since I am the occasion writer of sermons. I want background into what was happening in a Scriptural passage--both for when it occurred and when it was written (two different things). I want to know how the original hearer of Scripture heard it--what was their background and how did he/she apply it. I want to know how a passage has been interpreted by tradition. ALL of that is just a small part of what I want to hear in a sermon. Of course, I also want to know what was put into the heart of the preacher by the Holy Spirit as well. I want sermons that touch everyone in a congregation, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, the business owner, the single parent, etc.

It isn't often that I hear exceptional sermons. Divinity school taught me to offer critique, and I've never gotten past that. I can overlook some things. But I know the difference between good and bad sermons.


Today I took the boys to a non-denominational church that I will not name. We were there on time. At least two people suggested that the boys go to the children's Sunday School instead of worshiping with me--but I declined that because I believe in worship as a family activity. I feel that maybe we all could have gotten more out of Sunday School in the end. There were three praise songs, and I didn't know any of them. I can get over that. However, the sermon was not good. It had passages out of context. Called part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus's first sermon--and it wasn't. And it didn't really explain how we got from the Scripture passage to the conclusion in a coherent way. I couldn't figure out the message or how to apply it to my life.

So today we attempted worship, but I'm not so sure I found it--even though we were in a church building for an hour.

My message to the sermon crafter: learn everything you can about the holy task of sermon preparation. Read! Find books that give background and history--and write well and speak well. This is something you work at--even take some voice lessons. And if it is what people are coming to church for, then you better make sure it is well prepared.

Honestly, I wanted to ask the pastor if he had ever been to seminary. But I kept my mouth shut.

If you are a pastor and want some books to study to hone your writing, send me a message. I can help you with some resources.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Short Sermon for St. Thomas

Today's gospel lectionary text for the 2nd week of Easter comes from John 20:19-31:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

Thomas has a reputation. He is known as doubting Thomas. He is ridiculed because he needed proof that it was Jesus who was resurrected. He had to see the marks on Jesus's body for himself.

I propose that we are much more like Thomas than we think.

Credit: Pat Byrnes
How curious that yesterday, on Earth Day, there was a March for Science that was held in cities and towns around the world. As with other recent marches, it is entertaining to read the signs and enlightening to hear the stories about how science saves lives. Modern science is a marvel, and we owe a lot to the Enlightenment thinkers that were curious enough to discover how the world works.

But those same early thinkers were up against a religious culture that demanded you accept things on faith alone. Often imprisoned, sometimes tortured, the early astronomers were forced to recant their findings. Great plagues were not seen as a problem with rats and the fleas they carried, but a sign that God was punishing for sin. The Church of the day didn't necessarily want people to think about things for themselves--it is much easier for religion--and government--to keep people living solely in faith and not in the enlightened ways that were coming from science, philosophy, and sometimes showing up on the doors of churches.

Today we live in a time that has for the most part accepted the findings of science. Of course some things exist in theory, but those theories are good ones and some will be proven some day. Some Christians do refute things like evolution, global warming, a round earth(!)--but like the religious leaders of old, they are living against what is known--a last vestige of a population living on faith only. The rest of us live as people who have seen things proven. And we are more like Thomas than we know.

Living on faith alone is fine unless it harms others. Bringing live, venomous snakes into worship can be about faith, but those snakes bite and kill. Saying that the rapture is imminent so we really don't need to take care of the environment creates a harmful attitude for our children who will have to live with our dumping of toxic sludge and polluted waterways.

As a Christian, I'd rather be like Thomas. Give me a bit of proof of some things. Let me hear the stories and decide for myself. Let me look at the archaeological findings and see what I can learn about the life and times of the biblical characters. Let me actually see you live your faith, and I'll know if it is truly a good thing or not.

Legend has it that Thomas went all the way to India after Jesus's ascension--the very fact that he needed proof did not hold back his witness. Whether you live closer to faith or science, there is a place for your story as well. Yes, Thomas will always be known as the doubting disciple, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrected Church Attendance

After a month of not attending church services, my Sunday guilt rose to a new high on this High Holy Day of Easter. I looked for a church to attend; and in the process, found a new paradigm for the next year: it's time I took my boys on a "road-trip" of congregations to let them experience what is the same and what is different about worship. My oldest son is all for this. My youngest is missing our old congregation a lot. Middle son is indifferent. But we went for it anyway.

Today we attended a UCC church in Cary. I had been drawn to go there due to the rainbow comma that they had placed at the street sign. I pass by there every week, and I had heard the pastor speak last October at a preaching conference I attended.

Things to remember for next time: get there at least 10-15 minutes early so that you can be greeted, sign the visitors' book, and peruse the worship folder to see if there is anything you need to help your children with--like how the prayers of the people would be done and how communion is handled. As it was, we got there right on time. Luckily, we were greeted, given a first-time visitor's bag, and the greeter helped us find seats in the seasonally packed sanctuary.

The best thing about today is that the sermon spoke to my heart letting me hear exactly what I needed. I have been missing this from Sunday morning worship for many months. My heart has been resurrected through the act of corporate worship as well. At least for this week, I will not feel as though something is missing.

My oldest was surprised by how short the sermon was. This led to a great theological discussion on how denominations emphasize different aspects of worship. Baptists have always held the sermon as the most important part--a reason why baptist churches put the pulpit front and center. After the sermon today, there was still offering and communion.

As we were walking in, my youngest wanted to know if they would get a paper to draw on. I didn't know, but to my surprise, they had a familiar sheet from Illustrated Children's Ministry (the same one that I had purchased for my recent church experience). And there was a sharpened pencil in the welcome bag--my youngest 2 shared it as they worked on the activities.

I'm excited to see where this church adventure takes us. As a parent, I am responsible for my children's spiritual development. One of the things that I loved as a teen was the times I got to experience worship a little differently. I hope that I can expose my boys to new ideas and that we can have more theological discussions. It might even be interesting to write a book on what we/I learn in this time of wandering.