My Reasons Why …

Those who are personally connected to me know that on July 1 I began a two-month sabbatical that runs through the end of August.

I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how I could best spend my time.  At the top of the list were things that I could do for my personal renewal.  It feels great to have reached the stage in my development where the things I need for my personal development are at the top of my list.

I’ve also thought about how I could spend my time attending to vocational matters as well.  It took a while, but I think I have landed on the thing of greatest value.  Let me take a moment and give you a little background – and share how the idea came to me.

As some of you know, I spent the entire calendar year of 2019 coming to terms with the fact that I felt called – yes, called – to leave the practice of parish ministry.  I engaged in a lengthy process to help me come to terms with my call to leave parish ministry in the healthiest way possible.

On December 29, 2019, I sent a letter out to the congregational I serve letting them know I would be leaving parish ministry – and my time as their pastor – on April 26, 2020.  In the letter, I simply told the congregation that I felt called to leave the practice of parish ministry in order to pursue a more balanced and fulfilling personal life.  The congregation could not have been more loving and supportive of my decision.  Their positive and loving response exceeded anything I could have imagined.

I then spent the days between December 29 and March 19 exploring my options.  I was completely ready to put whatever fit into my 2018 Toyota Corolla iM (leaving behind all that didn’t fit) and drive to Spokane, WA on Tuesday, April 28.  I was ready to hang out with my family as I figured out what the next stage of my life would look like.

Everything changed for me, however, on the night of March 19, 2020.  That was the night when Los Angeles’ stay-at-home order went into effect in response to the COVID-19 situation.  I knew immediately that I could not pull out of town on April 28 as I planned.  I HAD to stay with the community I loved so and help them get through to the other side of this.  I immediately contacted the church’s Leadership Team and let them know of my offer.  They quickly accepted my offer.  The congregation was informed within 24 hours as well.

When I made that offer, I imagined that it would only take another 2-3 months to get to “the other side”.  In the coming days, however, it began to become increasingly clear that it would take much longer than 2-3 months.  At that point, I wasn’t concerned with how long I would extend my stay.  I was focused simply on getting to the other side.

Then something else completely unexpected happened.  As I was preaching a sermon on Ezekiel’s passage regarding the valley of dry bones on March 29, a sense of conviction overcame me.  It was unlike any experience I had ever had before.

The commentary I used to inform my sermon that day talked about how when the vision was given for how the bones would be brought back together, the actual assembling of bones wasn’t given first.  The first thing that was given was that the breath of the Spirit.  Once the Spirit of new life had been given, then – and only then – would be bones come back together.

As I was preaching the sermon that morning – and talking about old bones coming together in new ways – I felt in my soul that I was being called to stay longer than 2-3 months.  So I reached out to the Leadership Team 2 days later and let them know I was willing to stay much longer than just 2-3 months.  That night we began a process that would eventually extend my stay at the church at least through June 30, 2021.  We also pledged to one another that we would create a healthy process in the months leading up to June 30, 2021 that will allow both myself and the church to evaluate whether or not we want to continue beyond that date.  I am so grateful to the members of our Leadership Team for following the leading of the Holy Spirit and creating a healthy process for living into important decisions regarding our futures.

With all of that said, what I realized in the middle of the night last week is that I would like to use my blog to engage in a particular writing project.

The concept for the writing project is based upon the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.  I want to spend my time with you in July and August reflecting on the reasons why I felt compelled to leave the practice of parish ministry in the first place.  I am not going to give you a specific number of reasons why I chose to leave at the outset.  I want to create room for the Holy Spirit to clarify my reasons in the process of my writing.  I also will not put my reasons in ranked order.  Even if I wanted to, I’m not sure how I would explain why reason number four was less pressing than reason number two.  I will, however, use a number on each blog entry to give my readers and me a quick point of reference.

There’s one last thing I want to make crystal clear as I embark upon my journey.  My reasons for wanting to leave the practice of parish ministry come from my church experience from a variety of sources.  They come from all the communities that I have been a part.  These faith communities include Deer Park United Methodist Church (Deer Park, WA); Fox Island United Church of Christ (Fox Island, WA); Covenant United Methodist Church (Spokane, WA); Thornton United Methodist Church (Thornton, CO); Warren United Methodist Church (Denver, CO); Sixth Avenue United Church of Christ (Denver, CO); Mountain View United Church (Aurora, CO); and Woodland Hills Community Church UCC (Los Angeles, CA).  My reasons are also related to the experiences I have had serving on the Committees on Ministry in both the Rocky Mountain Conference (UCC) and the Southern California-Nevada Conference (UCC).

I have given the full list of communities I have served (either as a lay leader or ordained leader) because it is crucial for my readers to know the church I am currently serving did NOT nearly drive me out of ministry.  Far from it.  In fact, the church I currently serve was a huge reason I decided to remain in parish ministry. No, the struggles that I face in deciding to continue living and serving in local churches came MUCH earlier – well before I responded to God’s call for me to attend seminary and be ordained.

I want to close this “Forward” by saying I am offering my reasons for nearly leaving parish ministry not out of a narcissistic desire to talk about myself.  I have lived most of my 53 years keeping these experiences to myself and know that in some ways my life would be easier if I didn’t put the reasons out there.  And yet I have chosen to do that …

Why?

I believe that the reasons I share can be helpful to folks from a variety of locations.  I believe my reasons can help those who attend local churches pull back the proverbial curtain and get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes in local churches.  I believe my reasons can help lay leaders whose perspective on local church matters is not always as expansive as it could perhaps be.  I also believe my reasons can help my beloved clergy colleagues connect to (and then express) some of their frustrations that they haven’t yet put into words.

Regardless of what your social location is, I hope my words will spur conversations that extend FAR beyond my blog.  For those who know me well know that I have a deep and abiding love of faith communities.  While faith communities are certainly capable of taking actions that are painful and disorienting, I have seen some of the greatest acts of love and grace emanate from faith communities as well.

Thanks for journey me on this difficult, vulnerable, and – hopefully – satisfying journey.

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Should Re-Opening Our Doors Mean a Return to Normal?

I was all set today to write about one thing, when another topic unexpectedly presented itself through the conversation I had with a friend.

My friend and I were talking about how for the last nearly three months, nearly everyone has been focused on opening up and returning to “normal” as quickly as possible.  That’s about the only thing that has been on people’s mind.

With the reports of horrific acts of injustice perpetuated upon our African American sisters and brothers across the country the past several weeks, suddenly the conversation has been changed.  We are no longer focusing solely on things like handwashing and the use of sanitizer and face masks.  We are beginning to ask ourselves deeper questions about how we will treat one another when our communities re-open.  We are asking how we can root out the virus of racism that has infected our soil for over 400 years – and beginning to ask how we can treat the virus of racism every bit as seriously as we treat the COVID-19 virus.

So how will we do it?

There are no formulaic answers I can offer to that question.  I do know a couple things I can offer as a jumping off point.

First, I know it will take time to address the issues of systemic racism.  Unlike the process of re-opening businesses and services after the stay-at-home orders, we won’t be able to have a target date (i.e. systemic racism will come to an end on August 15).  When it comes to relations between African Americans and Americans of European descent, these problems have existed on our soil for over 400 years.  Those long-standing challenges won’t disappear overnight.  While I wish they could be solved in a matter of weeks – sadly, I don’t believe they will.  And those who often present solutions as being quick and easy are often projecting some degree of their power and privilege as they fail to appreciate how deeply entrenched racism is in our communities. 

Second, building relationships between people of different racial/ethnic locations is one of the best tools that can help us overcome racism.  While educational materials dealing with racism have been flying off the bookshelves the last 10 days, educational materials alone cannot solve the problem.  I learned that education alone doesn’t solve social problems when I worked as an educator in the field of HIV/AIDS in the mid-1990’s.

In the early days of that earlier pandemic, many public officials bought into the notion that it we simply educated people, they would change their at-risk behavior – and the transmission of HIV would stop.  That wasn’t true.  When it came to creating behavioral change, one of the most important factors involved how an individual felt about themselves and others.  And the best way to effect self-esteem and one’s understanding of self in relation to others is through relationships.

Here’s where it gets tricky.

As my friends of color have said many times, entering into relationship doesn’t mean a person of European descent simply calls up a person of color that she or he might work with or occasionally see at a social gathering and expressing his or her solidarity.  Entering into relationship means sharing many facets of your lives over an extended period of time (i.e. sharing a leisurely meal or coffee at your favorite establishment; taking trips to each other’s favorite spots; sharing celebrations with one another such as birthday parties, etc.).  Most importantly, it takes talking about a wide-variety of topics – not just race.

Third, it will take attention to exploring what we mean by saying we want to talk about race.  I’ve talked with friends of color who are not African American about what they are experiencing these days.  Many express how utterly left out they feel in our current conversations about race.

They have been quick to note that they understand why there is a particular focus on relations between African Americans and European Americans right now given the recent tragedies.  They also say that as we move forward, we need to pause and ask ourselves, “How comprehensive do we want to be when we talk about race and racism?”

As the pastor, I get frustrated when some in our faith community talk about our church and say it is almost all white.  Some of those who say that fail to “see” many of the people of color who ARE in our community: people, for instance, who are of Afghani, Argentinian, Columbian, Indian, Japanese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Taiwanese background.  This pains my heart that they don’t “see” all of the racial/ethnic diversity that is actually present.

Of course, there are many, many, many other things that need to be addressed as we prepare to re-open our doors in coming weeks and months.  I offer these three things as simply a jumping off point for further conversation.

While we may all have different ideas of what needs to be done in the days ahead, I think there is one thing upon which we can all agree based upon the events of the past two weeks.  While we all are eager to re-open our doors, few of us are eager to return to “normal”.  Here’s hoping we return to something FAR better!

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To Worship In-Person, or Not To Worship In-Person. That is the question …

Some folks have been wondering about why our church is waiting until September to open its doors for in-person worship.  They are especially curious since last March I wrote about how I view the church as an essential service provider.

“If you believe churches are essential service providers, doesn’t that mean you would want us to open our doors as soon as possible?!” some have asked.

Let me take a moment and share with you how my thinking has evolved since the early days of March.

Leaders of worship communities here in California have been given very specific information about what would be required in order for us to open our doors to in-person gatherings.  Let me list a few of those requirements to help you better understand what would be required.

First, we would have to limit the number of worshippers to 25% of the Sanctuary’s capacity.  This means that we would potentially have individuals posted at the doors who would turn people away once our capacity has been reach.  That alone would break my heart and spirit!

Second, the flow into the Sanctuary would look and feel very different than what we are used to.  As folks filed in to the entry way (6-feet apart and one at a time), for instance, they would have to sign a liability waiver which would indicate they understand the risk they are assuming and would not hold the church liable for an exposure to the virus.  The waiver forms would service a dual purpose.  In case of an exposure, it would give the church the ability to contact those who had been exposed so they could quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Of course, as they are waiting to sign waivers, individual temperatures would be taken to ensure they are not symptomatic.  For those not wearing face masks, they would be given one to wear.  A volunteer would also be stationed near the restrooms to ensure that only one person at a time could use the restroom.  The volunteer would also ensure that surfaces would be wiped down between users as well.  Since we could not allow individuals to pass one another in the hallway, bathroom users would then be required to head down the hallway and enter our sanctuary through the front – rather than through the narthex.

No Sunday bulletins, hymnals, song books, prayer cards, pen/pencils, or offering envelopes would be made available.  We cannot offer materials that could be reused.

Ushers would ensure that people were seated 6-feet apart from one another in the sanctuary and in the order they arrived.  Those arriving first, for instance, would be seated at the front; those arriving late would be seated in the back.  No exceptions would be made – so individuals could not sit where they choose.

Third, the service itself would feel very different.  There would be no congregational singing or responsive reading (i.e. Call to Worship or Unison Prayer of Dedication of offerings) since these forms of projection are high risk activities for the transmission of the virus.  Standing would also be eliminated during the service so people would not be tempted to use the backs of the pews in front of them to stand.

If someone coughs or sneezes during the service, they would be removed from the worship area so as not to risk others to exposure.

There would be no offering taken – since offering plates could not be passed from one person to another.  At most, there would be a plate or box where folks could drop the offering into as they leave.

At the end of the service, folks would be dismissed in the reverse order from which they arrived.  Those who had arrived last who were seated in the back would be dismissed first; those who had arrived first who were seated in the front would leave last.

There would also be no opportunity to physically greet or connect with one another.  There wouldn’t be any handshakes, hugs, or closing circle (where people joined hands).

There would be no coffee hour offering to risk the chance of transmission in closely gathered space. 

If an exposure did occur, then in-person services would be suspended for at least 14 days since all of the worship leaders would have been exposed.  This means those churches who are rushing back to worship would face the very real possibility of starting – and then stopping – their in-person services.

As our church Leadership Team looked at the list of requirements, they realized two things.  First, it will take a while to draw up a plan of action to ensure all the required steps are taken.  Second, the service would not feel like our usual worship experience.  That’s why they decided to give us until September to get ready for a return to worship.

After hearing all this, you might think, “I understand how challenging the circumstances are that would allow us to return.  But if we are an essential service, why don’t we just work hard and meet the requirements right away so we can worship?”

There is one important way church are very different than some of the other essential service providers.  Most essential service providers have large paid staffs that can take all of the required actions.  Most small local churches do not have large paid staffs.  They depend primarily on volunteers.  And while most of our volunteers are reliable – this situation would take volunteering to a whole new level.  If the person who volunteered for one of the essential tasks failed to show (i.e. the person who agreed to take temperatures or the person who agreed to monitor and wipe down the rest rooms), then we might potentially have to cancel the services.  We could no longer try to skate by with last minute fill ins.

While everything I’ve mentioned so far has to do with physical – or practical – concerns, there are theological reasons as well.  I do NOT believe that the church is defined by its building.  I believe that the church – or the Body of Christ – is a spiritual body that comes alive whenever its members gather.  It just so happens that now, the body is gathering online.

What’s exciting is that the body is doing something now that it has never done before at WHCC: it’s gathering 7-days a week in one form or another!  So while of course we miss the opportunity to be physically in one another’s presence, as members of the body of Christ we cannot yet take the risk of exposing our beloved sisters and brothers to a virus that would be deadly for those who are the most vulnerable members of our community.

I have watched as some pastors and faith leaders have railed against our elected officials for taking away their Constitutionally given right to worship.  I vehemently disagree with how they are positioning themselves.  I believe that our elected officials who are establishing guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus are acting with the very best interests of the residents of their communities in mind.  I think they are honorable people: many of whom are themselves part of worshipping communities.  It pains me greatly to see these honorable people vilified.

Even worse, it saddens me to think that some of these pastors and faith leaders are trying to rush back to worship largely for financial reasons.  While I certainly understand the challenges of churches meeting their financial obligations during this time of lock downs, I do not see how these pastors and lay leaders can look themselves in the mirror – knowing that they are putting their financial concerns before the well-being of their members.

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to share this information with you.  I understand that not all of my readers will agree with some of my statements or concerns.  That’s okay.  I just wanted you to hear a side of the conversation that is often completely left out in the coverage of this matter.

Take care, be safe, and thanks for “listening”.

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Leading in Troubled Times

I’ve realized that perhaps the best way for me to approach the blog isn’t to wait for others to raise questions or comments, but simply write or respond to those things that come up for me.  Of course, if anyone sends in a question, I will be happy to respond to their question.  By being more attentive to those things welling up inside my soul, however, it will give me a more regular opportunity to write.

So what am I thinking about today?

I’m thinking about what it means to lead – in these unprecedented time when we are dealing with both a global pandemic and deep pain in our nation concerning systemic racial injustice.  Let me tell you specifically what I’m chewing on.

This morning I had a breakthrough in my weekly Codependents Anonymous group.  My breakthrough had to do with the challenge of what it means to lead from a non-codependent place.  Let me tell you why that’s such a challenge for me.

I have always been a natural leader.  When I was a child, my mother and sister found a t-shirt they said was made for me.  It read: “Where are they?  I must find them.  I am their leader”.  I was elected to my first leadership position when I was just 12 when I was voted student body treasurer for my junior high. 

The hard part about leading from such a young age was that I developed some unhealthy ideas of what it meant to lead.  I thought, for instance, that leading meant fixing other people’s problems for them.  I also that the mark of a good leader was that she or he must be liked.  Those were just a couple unhealthy ideas I embraced about leading.

As I moved into adulthood, I carried those early beliefs with me.  That’s primarily how I got to the point last year where I decided I MUST leave parish ministry.  I got to that place because I truly believed that the only way I could lead a church was if I continued to live a life dominated by those unhealthy ways of being.

In the past year, however, I have realized that’s not the case.  It IS possible to be an effective leader while acknowledging I can’t fix everyone’s problems.   I also realized (in a VERY deep way) that it’s okay if others have different perceptions than I do about what needs to be done and how that work needs to be accomplished.  Most importantly, I got – for the first time in my life – that it’s okay if other people are unhappy with me.  I can still love myself in the midst of these challenges.  Once I “got” these things, I realized I COULD continue to lead a faith community. I’m grateful that God – and my church – was so patient with me during this learning process.

I’ve really been challenged to hold onto these insights past week as our country has been wrestling with the deeply-entrenched systemic racism that has once again reared its ugly head through the recent deaths of Breeona Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery.

There are some, for instance, who believe that the events have revealed clear battle lines in the struggle for racial equality.  There are “good people” and “bad people”.  They believe a good leader’s job is to rally folks in their camp to lash out at those on the other side.

That’s one way to lead.

My call to lead, however, is built on a VERY different approach.  My call is about working to obliterate the whole notion of camps and begin to build bridges between those who would otherwise define themselves as enemies – in hopes of identifying areas of common vision and values as we move forward together.

While some might affirm my sense of call in an abstract way, they can be very critical when my call is put into action.  For my call to lead means creating room in the conversation for people some would demand NOT be included.  My call to lead means allowing situations to unfold where tension can be palpable – in order to expose the work that needs to be done (not just within one’s opponent, but within one’s self).  In other words, my call to lead means letting go of my codependent desire to fix things for others in a way that avoids confrontation at all costs.  That – I’m learning – will be a life-long struggle for me.

The good news I can share with you today is that I’ve come a long way on my road to recovery. I am increasingly able to be okay with folks who are frustrated with me because I’m not doing what they want – or in the way they think things need to be done.  I’m increasingly able to use those differences as an opportunity to build first a dialogue and then a relationship.  And that (the building of relationships, or bridges) is what my call to lead is all about.

Thanks for listening.  And let me close by saying this.  I believe that we are all called to lead in some arena – be that among your family, your friends, or your community.  I hope you will embrace your call – and lead in a way that honors both the uniqueness of your call as well as the uniqueness of the call of other’s as well.  I believe that each of us must play an important role in moving the world forward as we seek healing for a troubled world.

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To Prove or Not to Prove? That is the Question …

Today’s comment comes from Stevie. She wrote: “Pastor Craig… I’m reading a book about a man named Anselmo, born in Italy in 1033. Having spoken with God in a dream as a child he dedicated the rest of his days to proving to mankind the existence of God. In the end he went mad. I’m thinking you get that. Even I do.”

I can definitely relate to Anselmo! As a pastor, I am blessed to have dozens and dozens of opportunities every day to engage people in meaningful theological conversation. One thing I’ve learned about trying to “prove” God’s existence is most often those efforts are bound to failed.

That’s because most of us enter into such a conversation with a bias that profoundly affects the outcome. Those, for instance, who deny God’s existence often try to disprove God’s existence by pointing to all of the bad things in the world and concluding, “How can there be a God if these things happen.” In the next breath, they will almost always point to the good things that happen in the world and credit humanity for those things.
Those who try to prove God’s existence take the opposite tact. They point to all the bad things in the world and blame humanity. Then they point to all the good things in the world and credit God alone.

Because of radically different jumping-off points, it’s nearly impossible to move folks from either camp even an inch.

How did we get so polarized in our ways of thinking about God?

I suppose there are a lot of different answers to that question. I’ll share just one of the possible answers and then let others jump in.

One of the greatest challenges monotheistic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity face is explaining the existence of evil. “If there is really only one God?” opponents of monotheism argue, “then God either causes or allows evil. Neither option is acceptable to me,” opponents counter. “So therefore, I reject the notion of God outright.”

When some of our Jewish ancestors were in exile, they were exposed to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism portrayed a world that represented a cosmic clash between the forces of light and darkness; good and evil, if you will. Our spiritual ancestors were drawn to the notion that those dark forces could be blamed for evil – so upon their return, their sacred writings in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) began to develop the source of evil.
Later this theological development of evil bled over into the emerging Christian tradition – and orthodox Christians began embracing the notion of Satan – or the devil. If you would like to explore a much more developed explanation of this theological evolution, I would strongly recommend Elaine Pagels’ book The Origin of Satan.

While the embrace of an oppositional force for God was convenient in the short-term (i.e. it let God off the hook for the bad things that happened), it complicated things in the long run. And for many, it moved Christianity closer to the development of a form of polytheism. I have met many Christians over the years, for instance, who speak of Satan – or the Devil – in ways that make it sound as if the Devil is nearly as strong as God!

As a radical monotheism who balks at any form of polytheism, my challenge is to live in a world that both acknowledges God as the Ground of Being (as Paul Tilich would say).

How do I do it?

The best way to explain how I do that is to use an example of a television show I grew up with. When I was a child, I was transfixed by the show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. As someone who lived in a rather non-descript small town, the show exposed me to the beauty and majesty of the natural world in exotic places: placed that looked NOTHING like where I lived. I loved the natural beauty that was depicted.

Every once in awhile, however, Wild Kingdom would show things that I found very jarring. There would be taped images of a cheetah racing down an antelope, catching it, and devouring it. Those images were incredibly difficult to watch and process.

Over the years, however, I learned something very powerful – and even humbling – from the show. I learned that the beauty and power of nature was all-inclusive. I couldn’t just pick and choose the bits that I found appealing and call it “nature”. If I really wanted to explore nature, I had to see it all (including the disturbing pieces).

I gradually began to learn that there was tremendous wisdom in the natural world. I learned that what I might see in one moment and call “disturbing” was actually part of a much larger scheme of things. If I hung in there long enough, I could arrive at an awareness for the whole. In order to do that, however, I had to hang in there through the challenging moments (moments when I wanted to cover my eyes and look away) and trust that something bigger was going on than I could comprehend in any one moment.

It was my experience of the natural world via Wild Kingdom that prepared the way for my radical monotheism. I have a way of being in the world where I believe God permeates the world. While God pervades all of creation, we human beings have the ability to make choice. Some of these reflect the life-giving Light of God’s being; others do not. I believe that God is more powerful than any expression of “darkness”, or “evil” that we can manifest: individually or collectively. My spiritual challenge, then, is to hang in there – live in the strongest connection/relationship with God that I can – and trust that the “good” will ultimately prevail.

Of course, I don’t try to argue with those who are locked into either of the two camps I mentioned at the outset. I am comfortable letting them be where they are. And I rest easy where I am. That has been the way I’ve avoided the fate of Anselm and kept a few remnants of sanity.  At least on my good days …

So how about you? What thoughts do you have in relation to Stevie’s comments?

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