Maintaining Our Focus

While there are certain aspects of social media I love (i.e. the ability to stay in communication with loved ones around the world with whom I would otherwise not communicate), there are aspects of it that I dislike greatly.  Today I want to focus on one of those.

Social media has picked up on a quality that Americans have had for a long, long time (the inability to maintain our focus on a cause or issue) and made it much, much worse.  When I read Facebook, for instance, it seems like the primary issue of concern for Americans changes from week to week.  One week, most everyone is focusing on the need to address climate change due to the fires breaking out all over the West.  Another week, the issue is whether mail-in voting should be encouraged or discouraged.  Another week the issue of concern is whether people should feel good about the development of a vaccine for COVID-19.  Virtually every week or two, the issue of concern seems to change.

That was one reason why I was skeptical that our country would be able to maintain our focus on issues of systemic racism when the issue rose to the forefront following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd last Spring.  At the time, many people professed that those three events changed their entire perspective on life.  Before, they never understood that racism was such a big problem.  Now, many said, they were “woke”.

They also added that things felt different this time – different, say, from the summer of 2016 when the country experienced the deaths of Philando Castiel and Alton Sterling at the hands of police.  And yet, just a few months later after the deaths of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd – for so many Americans, the latest issues have displaced their earlier concern.  So many are no longer “woke”; they have gone back to sleep.

All of this has me wondering how can we break this long-standing pattern for Americans of jumping from one trendy issue to the next and begin to maintain our focus long enough to affect lasting change?

For me, the answer comes from the example of a woman named Shannon Watts.  At the time of the Sandy Hook school shootings in December of 2012, Shannon Watts was a stay-at-home mother of five who was a former communications executive.  The morning after the shooting, Shannon started a Facebook group that said all Americans must do more to reduce the incidents of gun violence.  To this point, there is nothing that unusual in Shannon’s story.

Unlike many of us, however, Shannon didn’t stop there by merely expressing an opinion on social media.  She focused the energy of thousands of people who responded to her message in order to form a group call Moms Demand Action.  Today, that group that was founded by a stay-at-home mother of five has grown into the strongest organization in our country that’s working to prevent gun violence.  They currently have over 6 million members – and local chapters in every state.  The achievements which the group has been able to win regarding legislative actions to address gun violence are far too numerous to mention here.  If you would like to see their accomplishments, click here: https://momsdemandaction.org/about/victories/

The story of Moms Demand Action is one that needs to be retold often.  For if we are ever going to get truly serious about addressing the myriad of problems facing our world including things like systemic racism, affordable housing, and global climate change; we will have to develop the ability to do what Shannon Watts did: focus and sustain our attention on a problem for a number of years.

And the beauty of it is that each of us can choose what issue we want to focus on.  Some may focus their attention on systemic racial injustice.  Others may focus on affordable housing.  Others may focus on expanded access to health care.  Still others might focus on global climate change.  The list of issues that need a passionate, focused advocate like Shannon is too great for me to list here.

My prayer is that each and every one of us might move beyond a “follow what’s trendy/trending” approach that social media tends to exacerbate – and instead develop one or two passions that we can pursue in the course of affecting true and lasting change.

Who will be the next Shannon Watts?

Who knows?  Maybe YOU!

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Dealing with Change in Relational Ways

Over the past several weeks, a new phrase has entered the language of our society.  The phrase is “cancel culture” – and it is used by those folks who are angry that some elements of what had been defined as our “popular culture” are being removed since their names/faces/images represent values that are no longer appreciated.  The phrase is used often to talk about things like the removal of Confederate statues in public places or the removal of names that are considered by many to be culturally insensitive (i.e. the use of “Redskins” as the name of the NFL based in Washington, DC).

I will be the first to admit that the use of the phrase can frustrate me.  That’s because the phrase is often used by people who had access to power and privilege that others didn’t:  people who resent having to share their power and privilege with others.  As much as the phrase can frustrate me, though, I am trying to think about what the phrase can teach me.

So what does the phrase “cancel culture” teach me?

It reminds me that when it comes to living into this thing called “change”, it takes time.  For some, it takes years to live into change; for others, only seconds.  And therein lies the challenge of living into change as a community. 

Perhaps no group of people on the face of the planet understand this more than pastors.  That’s because whenever we change virtually any aspect of the life of the church, there is always a period of angst that follows.  Some folks immediately love the change because it’s new and different; other people immediately despise the change because – well – it’s new and different.

It doesn’t matter if we change an element of the Sunday service (i.e. moving the special music after the sermon instead of before it); if we move the time of a church event like a committee meeting to a different time (i.e. from 6:45 pm to 7:00 pm); or if we introduce a new worship song into the life of the community (i.e. replace a familiar musical call to prayer with a new call to prayer).  There are some people whose first reaction to change will be to fight it.

And while this has been true for all time, the resistance to change is especially strong these days because it seems as if EVERYTHING in the world is changing all at once.

So how can we all negotiate change in our individual and collective lives in a helpful way – particularly for those of us who naturally LOVE change and get annoyed when anyone resists change of ANY type?

I think this is where the notion of relationships comes into play once again.  (For those of you who know me well, “building relationship with those who see things differently” is my answer to virtually every question. 😊

When we find ourselves in the process of change, I recommend that we intentionally seek out those who are struggling with change and we make time to listen to them so they can process their frustration and fear that goes along with the changes that they understand as being “forced” upon them.

Of course, I realize not everyone is capable of entering into relationship with those who are resistant to change.  Some people have VERY strong personalities and get triggered whenever another person disagrees with them and immediately resort to name-calling or some other form of attack.  If you are one of these persons, then please ignore my advice and stop reading immediately.  Seeking out those who see things different would NOT be helpful for you.

If you are someone who can put aside your perspective or agenda for a moment and listen with genuine love and concern for the person with whom you are in dialogue,[1] then please – by all means – do so.  The moments you take to listen, empathize with “the other” people’s feelings (which should NOT be confused with endorsing their opinions), and build relationship will be moments that are invaluable in us moving forward TOGETHER.  If we embrace a culture of relationship-building, empathy, and trust – we can move closer toward living into a world where fewer and fewer people of all experiences and perspectives feel “canceled”.


[1] Please note that listening with genuine love and concern should NOT necessarily be confused with being phony or enabling another.

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Reason #7 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: My Call

Today is the last entry – Part 14 – in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry. I alternate each entry between reasons for want to leave, and reasons for staying.

So today I want to bring my series to a close.  At the outset of the series, I said I would share my thoughts in random order.  None of the reasons would be ranked.  Up until today, that has been true.  The things I’ve shared have NOT been given in the order of importance.  As I finish today, however, I will break that pattern and conclude by sharing the most important reason I chose to remain in parish ministry.

As I prepare to do that, I realized that it was incredibly appropriate I started the series by talking about the parallels between parenting and pastoring.  I’ve already alluded to a few parallels.  Today, I want to share what I feel is the most compelling parallel.

Like a parent, being a pastor is an identity – NOT a job.  It is an identity that stays with you 24 hours a day/7 days a week.  It is an identity that doesn’t end when your circumstances change.  Once you are a parent/pastor, you are always a parent/pastor.  It changes the way you see the world forever.

Of course, I know there are some who would question that statement.  They know some parents who struggle with their children and become estranged from them.  Some parents even disown their child or kick them out of the house.  Likewise, they know some pastors who leave parish ministry and never look back.  I get that.

I suppose the reason for the difference has to do with what leads an individual into the role of parent or pastor in the first place.  Some individuals, for instance, become parents because the role is suddenly thrust upon them through unexpected circumstances such as an unintended pregnancy.  In such cases, some people hunker down and decide to simply “get through” the process of raising the child so they can eventually get their life back.  Their investment in the process is primarily functional rather than emotional.

Similarly, some individuals go into parish ministry as the result of circumstances as well.  Perhaps the church was the center of their social life when they were growing up and they always felt affirmed there.  So when it came time to pick a career, such a person might have chosen to become a minister because it was a comfortable thing to do.

For others, however, they enter into the roles with a deep sense of call.  These folks are parents (or pastors) because they feel most complete as a human being when they engage in their role.  There is a part of them feels as if their identity as parent – or pastor – is why they were put here on earth.

It usually doesn’t take me long to tell the difference between those who are in a role because of circumstance versus those who feel truly called.  I’ve even developed different language I use for myself to distinguish the two.  I think of mothers and fathers, for instance, as those who biologically produce a child.  I think of moms and dads as those who cherish and nurture the children in their charge.  My friends who have fostered or adopted helped me grow into that understanding.

I use a similar thought process to distinguish between reverends and pastors.  Reverends (at least to me!) are people who have completed the academic coursework and have the institutional authorization to lead a congregation.  Pastors, on the other hand, are people who are called to cherish God’s people and embody God’s unconditional love and grace as much as humanly possible.

Those who know me well know that’s why I do a double-take whenever some-intentioned person refers to me as reverend.  (Much like when I hear someone cry out, “Mr. Peterson”, and I find myself looking for my dad.) While I know I have completed the academic coursework and have been institutionally authorized to lead a congregation, my identity – to my very core – is that of pastor.

I know my distinction between mother/father vs. mom/dad (and reverend vs. pastor) might trigger some who see things differently.  That’s okay.  I’m not offering my understanding in a pejorative way.  I’m simply sharing with you how I experience these words.

So when I thought about leaving parish ministry, I was forced to realize that no matter what position I sought out – whether I was a barista at Starbucks, sold shoes at Payless, or worked as an intake counselor at a recovery center – I would always be a pastor.

That because I’ve learned something important in my adult years.  It doesn’t matter where I go, or what I do in life: people relate to me primarily as a pastor because that is who God has called me to be.  I can be standing in line at Ralph’s (my local grocery store), sitting in the waiting room at the Kaiser Pharmacy, or flying on an airplane – you name it.  Within one or two moments, people are sharing with me their deepest secrets and desires for healing.

And you know what?  I absolutely love that!

Of course, being called by God to be a pastor can be a challenging reality to live into.  For I believe a true pastor can connect with nearly anyone on the planet, feel their pain, empathize with their suffering, and want to facilitate their healing.

While those things may sound good on the surface, I’ve learned not everyone appreciates a pastor’s approach to the world.  I was reminded of that over the weekend when I was talking with a friend about the recent George Stephanopoulus’ interview with Mary Trump (President Trump’s niece who recently wrote a tell-all book).

Anyone who knows me at all, knows that I have SERIOUS objections to most of Donald Trump’s policies as President.  And I can honestly say that Donald Trump has the most consistently objectionable public behavior that I have ever witnessed in any elected official.  Whenever I think of the phrase “What would Jesus do?”, it is safe to assume that Donald would do the opposite of that (which makes my Evangelical friends’ unwavering support of him baffling to me! – but I digress).

With that said, as I listened to the interview last Thursday – and heard stories about how Donald Trump was raised – my pastor’s heart immediately kicked in and made me feel badly for Donald.  My spontaneous prayer for Donald (given how he was consistently treated by his father) was that Donald could find his way toward healing that seems to have alluded him for his 73 years on the planet.  That way, perhaps, he could stop taking out his unresolved pain on our country and world.

While I tried to make it VERY clear in the conversation that I was NOT using his personal background to excuse his troublesome behavior and policies, I still felt badly for him.

My friend could NOT understand how those two things went together.  In her mind, if I felt badly for someone and empathized with them, that meant I was letting them off the hook for their policies and public conduct.  She let me know in very unkind words that she did not think it was possible to dislike someone’s way of publicly conducting themselves AND feel for them.

Unfortunately, those kinds of moments happen to us pastors a lot.  Our unusual ability to love and care for ALL of God’s children often angers and frustrates some – who demand that we hate the people they hate.  I have lost some significant relationships in my life because of my ability to love those whom the other person could not.  This is probably the most personally challenging aspect of being a pastor.

And yet, at the end of the day, I realized I wouldn’t trade my call for anything.  And the best place for me to live out my call to be pastor is in the parish (or in a denominational role designed to support the life of our local churches).

The thing that I have discerned over the past five months is that in the past I have been too quick to minimize my role as pastor in order to assume the role of administrator when others tried to thrust that identity on me.  In the future, I will work hard to resist those pressures.

Of course, being in parish ministry requires that a pastor does do a certain amount of administrative duties.  I get that, and I will not shy away from performing those administrative duties.  But my prayer as I step back into parish ministry this September is that I will never confuse the performance of administrative duties with embracing an identity as an administrator.  I was, yesterday; I am, today; and I tomorrow, I will be – a pastor to the core of my being.  That is my call.  That is my identity.  And while I will work to achieve a healthier balance between my personal and vocational lives (this is actually my number one goal for the years leading up to my retirement), it is up to me to hold on to that identity and celebrate it for what it is: a beautiful gift from God.

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Reason #7 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry: The Never Ending Struggle to Achieve Balance

Today is Part 13 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry. I alternate each entry between reasons for want to leave, and reasons for staying.

Today, I will close a portion of my series by giving you the final reason I considered leaving parish ministry.

As I was reading today’s Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times, I saw an article that touched on one of the greatest challenges we face – both as a nation and as a world: the COVID-19 pandemic.  As I read the article, I realized that perhaps the most challenging dimension of the pandemic isn’t the medical aspect: perhaps the greatest challenge is attitudinal.

For you see, most experts in the fields of medicine and public health have long agreed on what behaviors are needed to defeat the virus.  These behaviors include things like washing our hands, socially distancing, and wearing face masks.  We knew that if people followed these three simple guidelines, the virus could largely be defeated.  And yet many people continue to ignore these guidelines – even as numbers of infections and deaths continue to soar.

Why?

Because attitudinally we have reached a point where the rights of the individual trumps their sense of concern for others in the community.  The only thing that matters for some, it would seem, is their ability to choose for themselves if they want to do things like wear a mask or socially distance themselves.  The consequences of their behavior on others has little if any affect on their decision-making process.

In the church, we have been facing a similar challenge for a while now.  Let me take a moment and explain what I mean using my own tradition (The United Church of Christ, which was formed in 1957 when the Christian Congregational denomination merged with the Evangelical and Reformed denomination).

In The United Church of Christ we have two theological principles that lie at the heart of our denomination: the principle of autonomy (brought to us primarily through the Christian Congregational Church) and the principle of covenant (brought to us primarily through the Evangelical and Reformed Church).  Autonomy meant that every expression of the church (ranging from an individual member in a local church to the national setting of our denomination housed in Cleveland) could do whatever they felt was right in their relationship with God.  Covenant meant that each expression of the church should pause for a moment in their decision-making process and consider the effects of their decisions on the rest of the church.

In theory, it seemed like the marriage of these values (“autonomy” and “covenant”) was a match made in heaven.  The values could be complimentary and give us a wonderful sense of balance in our approach.  In reality, however, that has not been the case.  At important moments in the life of our church, one of the two principles has repeatedly dominated: autonomy.  Individuals, local churches, associations, and conferences often make decisions in a vacuum – giving little if any regard for how their actions affect other expressions of church.

This imbalance between “autonomy” and “covenant” shows up in many ways.  An individual in a local church, for instance, might complain about the version of Scripture that’s used in worship (i.e. one might assert “I like the King James Version and I want IT used in worship!” to which another responds, “I can’t stand the King James Version.  No one understands what it’s saying.  I want The Message paraphrase used in service instead!”).  It can make things difficult in the life of the local church when program decisions need to be made regarding things like programming or budgetary matters.  The delicate conversation often becomes a struggle of will (i.e. “I want MY area to get the most attention, even if it’s at the cost of YOURS”) instead of an opportunity to put the puzzle pieces together to form a beautifully crafted expression of the church’s mission statement.  Associations (the part of our denomination that authorizes ministry) can also assert their autonomy by ignoring the suggestions of the Conference when it comes to standards for authorizing ministry.  And finally, Conferences can ignore the needs of the National setting of our church by more of the moneys it collects from local churches and sending less money on to the National setting – thereby denying the National offices much needed resources.

More and more, these days, the situation in our local churches mirrors the battle that we see taking place during the COVID crisis – as we see individuals asserting their rights over their responsibility to others.  And the pastors in our local churches live with the tensions of these battles more than any other.  Given our current national climate, it is becoming increasingly exhausting and demoralizing to try to get individuals – and local churches – to balance their autonomy with our call to live out our faith in covenant.

This struggle to balance the demands of the vocal few with the needs of the many was my seventh and final reason for wanting to leave parish ministry.

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Reason #6 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Love Unlike Any Other

Today is Part 12 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry. I alternate each entry between reasons for want to leave, and reasons for staying.

I am heading done the stretch in terms of this series.  I can imagine exploring just one more reason for wanting to leave and two more reasons (counting today’s) for wanting to stay.  I am so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to share. 

My sixth reason for wanting to stay in parish ministry is the INCREDIBLE love that exists between a congregation and its pastor.  Of course, I know that is not true in every case.  That has simply been my experience over these past 18 years.

Let me give you two examples of that extraordinary love that come from the two communities I have served.

When I came to serve my first congregation (Mountain View United Church), I was in the early stages of my first long-term relationship.  Mike and I had been together for just two months when I made my first appearance at the church to serve as pulpit supply in January of 2002.  I stepped into their pulpit full-time about six months later.

So when Mike and I announced our intention to have a commitment ceremony in February of 2003, the congregation expressed their love for – and support of us – in ways that I had never seen before.  They threw us a bachelors’ party at one of the members home.  It was a 70’s themed disco party.  The theme of was my choosing (yes, I LOVE disco).  And the images of the group dancing together that night (in costume) to the Village People’s song YMCA will stay will me until I take my final breath.

I had also decided that when it came to the location of our commitment ceremony, I did NOT want to use the church I was serving.  I wanted to have a little distance between my ministry site and this very personal moment in my life.  So I decided to use my home church (Sixth Avenue United Church) for the ceremony.

Some churches might have been offended by their pastor choosing another site for his celebration.  Not Mountain View.  They not only respected my need for space but threw themselves into supporting the ceremony in every way they could – from providing music for the service to decorating the reception hall.  I could not imagine a healthier, more joyous way to celebrate love.  Thank you, Mountain View United Church, for creating a template of what love looks like for me that I have carried with me these past 17 years!

The second example of the mind-blowing love that can exist between a congregation and its pastor came when I announced my departure from my current ministry site: Woodland Hills Community Church.  I worked hard to create a carefully drafted letter that let them know that I wasn’t just leaving WHCC – I was leaving parish ministry all together in order for me to seek a new chapter in my life.

When I sent out the letter on December 30, there were many responses I expected to hear.  Things like “But what are we going to do?”, or “Is there anything we could do to get you to reconsider?”, or even a few, “It’s been real.  But its also been 10.5 years – maybe it is time for a change.”  I was ready to hear any variation on these themes.  Underlying all of the possible responses was the assumption that many would make my departure about them – and not me.

I could not have been more wrong!

Virtually every person I interacted with said almost the same thing: “While I am sad for me, I’m happy for you.  You need to venture out into the world and have the adventures you feel called to.  Go with our love!”

Those responses blew me away.  They expressed such unconditional love and grace – a kind I had NEVER known before.  As I look back on those early days of January 2020, I remember thinking to myself, “You know, Craig.  You totally underestimated how healthy the community is and how much they love you.”  That is a second memory of love that I will take with me to my final days.

Both of these moments – and so many other moments that came in the years in between – grounded me in the powerful love of God that can be made real in the relationship between a pastor and his flock.  It is a love unlike any other.  And it is my sixth reason for deciding to stay in parish ministry.

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