A visit to South Carolina

I’m wrapping up my time in South Carolina. It has been a great opportunity to teach seminary students located in a different region of the country. I have learned from them in class, I have discovered a bit of South Carolina’s history, and I have even tasted some southern cuisine. It has been nothing but delightful to join another learning community, even if for a short amount of time.

In class we have been talking about, rather wrestling with, ministry with children in this time. So many forces are shaping children today – consumerism, digital media, social networking, athletics – and it can be overwhelming for parents and ministry leaders as they try to engage in faith practices and learn about God’s story. While we are ending with more questions than answers, a few things have surfaced:

1. Our identity as people of faith comes from God, not society. Ground kids, ground us all, in that promise. Our identity as children of God never changes. While the world wants to commodify life, tell us what to wear, try to influence our values, and turn us into objects, God claims us and makes us subject of God’s love. That’s pretty cool.

2. Subjects need to live in community. As subjects of God’s love that means living in a relationship with God and with other of God’s subjects. Being in Christian community we are reminded of our identity and of the one who loves us and created us. In community we are formed and shaped as subjects of God’s love. In community we are informed of who is God is, and we grow deeper in our love for God, ourselves, and the world. And in community we are transformed, made new and empowered to love and serve others. And that leads to…

3. As subjects of God’s love we are also agents of God’s love. Yes, we gather with other Christian periodically, but we spend most of our time scattered in the world. And when we are scattered in the world, we have a role to play. We are to embody God’s love in the world, we get to give God’s love hands and feet and hearts and ears.

What if, at the heart of ministry with children (and their families), we helped children know theses three things? What if we shared these ideas with words and actions? What if we helped families do this as well? I don’t know what a typical week would look like in our congregations, but I’d hope we’d be spreading God’s love in the world.

Oh yea, and we have a guest who joined us. Check this out.

Learning from the past…the importance of the local congregation

I spent the first 15 years of ministry leading congregational change from the location of a congregation. I attended to our issues, opportunities and concerns…but I had the joy of being in the midst of a larger conversation. Alban Institute, and Loren Mead, were key leaders in that conversation. This interview sheds light on what was happening in those years, and it makes we wonder what this means for us today.

Check this out…
interview with Loren Mead

The Need for Funerals


Funerals are Easter moments; moments when God’s promises are proclaimed and Christians are reminded where their hope lies. Yet this is an ironic truth. Funerals are usually the last place we think of when seeking hope. Funerals are where people gather to recognize someone is no longer living, their death is marked and their life remembered. And people come to funerals come at various stages of accepting the loss, this passing of life. Good funerals recognize this reality, but the truth is a funeral doesn’t require the community to be ready. Christian funerals are more about pointing to another truth, one that lies outside of us. God, the creator of the universe and the creator of us, promises a way of life that extends beyond this world. And this is where our hope is grounded.

During Lent I was reminded how death has many forms and exists all around us. Sometimes we recognize it, and other times we push it aside. This past Holy Week I was drawn into the mystery of dying and the importance of honoring life by recognizing death. Society doesn’t know what to do with death, leaving many of wandering in the wilderness. Yet Christians need not fear death. And in fact, I’ll go as far as to say abundant living cannot happen unless we deal with death and dying. Said differently, I’m not sure I can live abundantly in the promises of Easter without participating in funerals.

Lately I have been trying to find ways of living abundantly in a season of dying. Some might say, great – you did the work of Lent and they’d be right. But entering Lent I was unaware how prevalent the dying was around me. The deaths I am experiencing are not physical. Rather they are a series of realities that have resulted in a season of endings and letting go. Meaningful work has ended, relationships are in transition, connections redirected, and communities forging new vision. The future looks very little like the past and a new path has not yet emerged. Many days I’m in a place, or accompanying others, trying to live between abundant living and the process of dying.

I was taken back by this recognition because the dying was not quick and definite. No, the dying has been a series of dying “moments”, ones which you think you can handle, but as they keep coming life turns into a rollercoaster, exhaustion sets in, and the future gets lost in the fog. During such a season, time is both a friend and an enemy.

Perhaps some of you know what this is like. Maybe you have accompanied someone through a long stint in the hospital or journeyed with a person that has a terminal disease; there are moments where the core of life is crystal clear and there are moments where death is so close you feel it. Sometimes you find the strength to push death off one more day and life wins for a moment. Sometimes you wish death would take over. Sometimes hope is secure, no matter the ending, and sometimes despair fills your spirit. God is present in many ways in such seasons; at times that is enough, at other times it’s a curse.

Sitting in Maundy Thursday worship, it became clear to me I needed a funeral – I needed to let go of my hope for life (at least how I imagined it) and be prepared for naming and confirming death. It was a moment where I confessed, I cannot longer live “in between,” where something, someone is neither alive nor dead. “In between” is a hard place to find life. The world is small and focused. And while grieving can begin, there is no way to move forward until death has been marked – the last breath taken, time of death recorded, and the words publicly stated. Sitting in worship on Thursday, I knew it was time, and I opened myself to such a reality.

Entering Good Friday worship, I came ready to hear the words, to acknowledge that brokenness and pain are real in the world, and loving deeply means risking a piece of ourselves. And, as I did, my eyes drifted to the cross. I can’t imagine what Jesus went through thousands of years ago, but I can feel, deep within me in a way words cannot express, the sin of the world – my sin, the sin of society, and the need we all have for grace and healing. And I heard Scripture and songs in a deeper way. Now what I needed was a funeral.

And two days later, Easter morning came. Our family worshiped with many others, and heard the news of the empty tomb. The loss and pain had not magically disappeared, but interestingly the fog had cleared enough to hear the message of hope again. “There is a new day ahead, one where there will be no more tears and no more pain. I promise!”

My season of dying is not over. I still have good-byes ahead and endings to come. Some are simply endings for which the future is open with possibilities; others are simply endings. But on this side of the funeral, I’ve been reminded of the promises of the empty tomb, and I’m once again seeking life.

My prayer for you is that you too may hear the promises of the empty tomb.

Curiosity and Inquiry

We, at Luther Seminary, are preparing to roll out a new curriculum in the fall. It’s a shift spurred on by changes in theological education, in the need to reduce cost, and a recognition of the dynamic nature of Christian public leadership today. It also takes into account the changes in the way we learn. While a lot of things will be different, the biggest change is at the center – we are shifting from a content-driven series of classes to an inquiry-driven learning process.

For many, it’s exciting. Exciting because there is more flexibility in the curriculum and more choices for students. Exciting because it recognizes students already enter as leaders, with unique gifts, experiences, and questions. Exciting because it takes into account the whole person, not just their head.

For most, it is also scary. Scary because it’s moving into unknown territory. Scary because more is left “to chance” then to a list in the registrar’s office. Scary because we are on the front side of a new education paradigm. It’s exciting, and scary, for teachers and students alike…but it is the right move – for the church.

This morning, as I was working on some of the details, imagining how students will receive this and getting a bit concerned, I came across a chemistry teacher who calmed my nerves and encouraged me to keep moving ahead. I share it with you with hopes of encouraging any of you who also are imagining a new way and trying to push into a new future of teaching and learning.

a new paradigm for education … educators as cultivators of curiosity and inquiry

Church Meets the World

Usually I prepare for teaching locked away in my office surrounded by shelves of books and peace and quiet. Yesterday I prepared for teaching a class on Faith and Mission Practices by mingling among people of difference ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic status, and situations in life. Some were looking for something tangible – a bag of food, some “new” clothes, or relief from tooth pain. Some were present to serve – in planned and unplanned ways. All received hospitality, a listen ear, and Christian community.

The “result” of my day was captured in some short video testimonies which I complied into two short videos. These stories and pictures are just the tip of the iceberg of what a “day at the mission outpost” is all about. I invite you to listen in, but more importantly I invite you to think about your own faith and mission practices. How is God calling you into  Christian community and how is God calling you into the world?

Identity and Way of Life


Yesterday I finished teaching one of my favorite courses – Discipleship and Vocation in Children, Youth and Family Ministry. Not a sexy title, and there are no gimmicks in the class. In fact, the class is pretty simple, it is about exploring Christian discipleship and vocation. In everyday language that translates into what does it means to be and live Christian? It’s about identity and way of life.

Now just because a course can be summarized in a sentence does not mean its subject matter is easy or simple. In fact, each week we gathered we discovered some things can be reduced to a simple statement, but putting such statements into conversation with our everyday experience is often complicated.  Life is messy. There is brokenness and pain. People are selfish, and self-centered. The world is noisy and vying for our attention. But there is hope, and promise. We all do have a purpose, gifts and agency. And while there are BIG things in life to figure out, there are also little ways we can make a difference everyday. Knowing the basics can be really helpful. And having conversation partners along the journey really matters.

But there is another thing we discovered.  Some of the ways we have been “doing” church (or at least practices those of us in the class grew up with) are not actually helping people get at what it means to BE Christian and LIVE Christian.

Perhaps that’s troubling news. It once was for me. But now my attention has shifted from being disappointed to being curious.

Why am I curious? Because I know, at least the way any gut knows things, many of our current ministry practices are not going away. In fact, many have a very long track record. Take worship, for example. It would be very surprising if worship suddenly became meaningless for Christians. Why? Because as I look back across time, I can’t think of one Christian community that didn’t exercise some worship practice. Does it look like the worship I am familiar with? No. But they drew on many of the same elements we do today.  The same can be said of prayer and serving others and telling the Christian story.  In addition, I think Christians are more open to asking questions these days. And I find that encouraging. Like the two-year old who wants to know why or the teenager trying to discover the deeper meaning of family practices, many Christians are hungry to know why congregations do what they do, and they are not content being passive participants. They want more, they not only what to know the meaning, they want participation to be meaningful.

So what does this mean for ministry? As I play with, and imagine, ministry in the years ahead, it seems more critical now to ground ministry in the basics of what it means to BE Christian and then help people discover how such an identity IMPACTS and SHAPES life. For preschoolers that might include reading stories about God’s people in the past, telling stories about Christians today and helping them wonder about what it will mean in their life. For adolescents it might be reminding them, day in and day out, that they are a child of God…loved as they are…gifted and capable, with the ability to make a difference in the world and impact the lives of those around them. For young adults it might include helping them form really good questions about life, and love, and relationships, and work, and the world. And it’s questions shaped out of an honesty about our limitations and selfish desires, yet full of possibility and with an eye to the future. It could include learning about prayer, as one prays, or engaging Scripture with an eye to the world and an eye to God, or serving others, not to fulfill our needs, but because someone else needs us to. And the list could go on.

Ministry today, for people raised in the church or new to the Christian faith, is both more basic…starting and ending at who we are as Christians…and more organic….in that it takes seriously the lived experiences and questions of each person and their communities.

This summer I turn 50. And, like many, am going to need to be reminded of who I am and what it means to live out of that identity in this time and place (and at this age). I hope the communities I am apart of will remind me of the basics, as they also join me on the journey. And I hope to do the same for them, curious and open to whatever the future brings.


Thinking Differently about “Bi-vocational” Pastors & Ministry

One of the core theological ideas I find extremely helpful for accompanying GOD’s people in their discovery of what it means to live as Christians in the world is Luther’s understanding of vocation. In this blog, Aaron Fuller wrestles with his many roles, or as Luther says stations, and how he lives faithfully into and out of those roles. Check it out and see what you think.


First off, I’m a big proponent of bi-vocational ministry.  Actually, I like to call it multi-vocational ministry.  For me, my understanding of ministry comes from the notion that none of us as persons are constructed out of a single role, type of work, or thing.  Our identities are shaped and varied by all sorts of forces, vocations, if you will.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about multi/bi-vocational ministry.  And a while back, I came across a conversation about the “issue” of bi-vocational ministry….primarily the theological problems it presents.  If you want to go into it in detail, you can check it out here.  Additionally, there are other perspectives as well, like this and this.  But here’s my take on their conversation:

  • Bi-vocational ministry is narrowly defined as having another job to supplement your pastoral salary (or lack thereof).  Vocation=work you get paid for.
  • The primary theological justification for…

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It’s Messy

Feed My Starving ChildrenI’ve relearned a lesson about being church today – It’s messy.  I know, that’s not a new thing, but why is it something I have to relearn time and time again?

I first learned how messy “doing” church was on a Thursday morning after an “out of control” Wednesday night with Jr. High students. I was in my early years of ministry and hadn’t anticipated the response the kids would have to the activity our leaders had proposed. And yes, first thing in the morning the custodian was in the youth ministry offices looking for “help” cleaning up the flour which was everywhere in the youth area. That learning about the messiness of church was written off to bad decision-making, and working with Jr. High students.

Then there was the time when “too many” people showed up for a conference I was organizing. We thought everything was “under control” but then the whole atmosphere changed. Things suddenly had to be rearranged and several people kicked it into high gear  making sure everyone had meals and materials and a place to sit. That learning about the messiness of church was written off to poor planning, and church leaders tendency to procrastinate.

And what about all of those ministry trips – be they mission trips, choir trips, adventure trips or trips to camp – aren’t they messy? So many moving pieces, so many people with varying expectations and so much communal living. And to top it off, it is ministry “out of the church box” and in the world where it is hard to control. Messiness at its finest. What was that messiness written off to? 

Ministry is hard to control, and messiness usually comes when things are out of our control. And then I got thinking. Maybe church, when it’s truly being church, is messy? Think about it. Our food shelf ministry – messy! Our grief and loss ministry – messy. Our ministry with Sr. adults -messy. Why? Perhaps ministry is at its best when it is in in our control. Maybe when we try to “control ministry” we too often push God out of the equation.

This past week I lived in the heart of the messiness of the church, and as I did, I saw the heart of ministry. Let me tell you one story. For almost a year now, a group of churches in our area have been planning a joint mission project. Week to week, month to month, the number of congregations on board changed. At last count, I think it landed around 20. For those focused on strategy, anyone would tell you having this many people jointly planning an event is a bad idea. The project – pack over 3 million meals for Feed My Starving Children. Have you ever worked with this project? If you have you know, it’s messy. Rice, soy, veggies and protein dust – everywhere. And now we are going to find a place, a church building none-the-less, and pack 3 million meals. That’s crazy messy. Who does that? And not only is the leadership complicated, the packing messy, but this group has to raise money to pay for each of those 3 million meals. At about a quarter a meal, that’s a lot of money to raise.

But here’s the deal. It happened. And today, less than a week after the last bag was packed, the meals are already on their way to Nicaragua to feed hungry kids. And in the process 10,500 people volunteered. Area basketball teams and scouting groups, Rotary groups and Bible Studies small groups, confirmation students and senior adults, public school kids and teachers…all pack into a church sanctuary, Sunday School rooms and fellowship halls to make a mess. (Can’t imagine it – check out this video.) 

One of the beauties of this “event” was how chaotic and messy it was. No one tried to control it. Guide it, yes – control it no. We didn’t know how it would happen, because no group had done such an event before. We didn’t know if we’d have enough volunteers to fill all the packing stations at each shift. But each shift meals were packed, one meal for one child, at a time. And at the end of each shift we heard a story, a story about one kid who’s life was changed because of this food. And suddenly it all came together. The number wasn’t 3 million, it was one + one + one.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin said this, “I think most of us are programmed to process the little stories, the emotional ones, things that touch people we can connect to. When it requires charts and graphs and multi-year studies, it’s too easy to ignore. We don’t change markets, or populations, we change people. One person at a time, at a human level. And often, that change comes from small acts that move us, not from grand pronouncements.” (See Our upside-down confusion about fairness for the full post.)

Change comes from small acts that move us…and church is its best when it drops into the lived experiences of human life. And human lives are complicated, broken…and messy. And that is where the church is called to enter.

I’m thankful for ministry moments which are messy, messy because they connect with people’s experiences and their story. And in the week ahead I’m going to focus less on control and more on small acts that move. Will you join me?

Hanging with Phil


Phil, the compensated celebrity spokesperson for the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, invited me to spend a long weekend in St. Louis. I, along with 650, said yes. (Phil’s the one in the middle and here’s the invite if you want to see Phil in action – 

Honestly, it wasn’t convenient. (There were several things going on at work and at home which I had to miss.) But I missed it last year and I needed to go. Why?

First, as many will say (including Tara Ulrich and Organic Youth Ministry) the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Gathering is more than a learning event, it is a network. And while this network is always there – virtually accessible with local and regional opportunities to gather – there’s something powerful about being in a space where the virtual network is physically real.

I’ve been teaching children, youth, young adult and family ministry at Luther Seminary for the past 9 years … and the funny thing about students is…well, they graduate. So one of the coolest things I get to do at this gathering is hear how life and ministry is going today…on the “other side” of graduation. While in St. Louis I had dozens of conversations with Luther alumni, now working in some area of ministry in the first third of life. I heard their joys, and felt their struggles. I listened. We laughed. We worshipped together, and we dreamed about what it means to move the church forward into this new age. These conversations were rich, not only because we reconnected, but because we were now partners in ministry – colleagues and friends.

But that’s not all. For the past several years I have worked with a team of leaders on a church-wide initiative on equipping youth ministry leaders. When we started it was a new concept, never tried before. People were confused and unsure how it would go, but they went with it. Now, three years later, people are coming up to me and sharing really cool stories about how they are using the work of this initiative to empower leaders – adults and youth – in ministry and in integrating their faith into their daily life. The smiles, many accompanied with hugs, tell me their confusion has turned to hope. I love the church. But I also know the church has to rethink it’s frames and approaches to ministry if it is going to faithfully live out its calling. While in St. Louis, I had a glimpse of the change taking place in the church.

And there’s one other thing. Our church, the church I have been part of all my life, is shifting it’s leadership model. Oh, don’t get me wrong…we don’t have it all figured out  but we are on our way. And I got glimpses of a new future, a future were leaders are  humble, servant leaders with a mission and vision. There is a desire for faith to be alive among God’s people and God’s people to be active in God’s world. For two days after the big gathering, I had conversation with some of these leaders. They, like me, had other places they could have been and other things they could have been doing. But they came together in St Louis to think beyond their stream of work and vision about a new day, a day where our church initiatives are more connected and collaborative. Why? because fostering faith among those in the first third of life – babies, children, youth and young adults – matters! 

So today, I’m tired and having a hard time reentering the world I left behind. It’s so easy to get back to the daily tasks…and I will…but I want to reengage in light of what I just experienced. How might my daily work, my ordinary work, keep these ideas alive? How might my decisions, big and small, be part of our larger church’s exploration of what it means to be church in 2014 and beyond? These are just some of the questions which distract and challenge me today.

For those of you who were in St. Louis – thanks for your work. You matter, your work matters and your presence in the ELCA Youth Ministry Network matters. Help me, help us, help each other and the church live our calling. And to those who were not there but are in some way part of this larger network of God’s people seeking to faithfully live their faith everyday…stay connected, both virtually and physically, because it helps fuel the journey.